Unconscious bias

Posted 18 November 2011 by

How many of us like to admit, even to ourselves, that we are biased to the extent that we have the potential to influence the choices we make about other people in our day to day lives?

Measures such as the Implicit Association Test series, which are well established in social psychology, have shown how we can unconsciously make associations about people by linking them to past memories, concepts or ‘in-built’ ideas, leading to stereotyping and bias.

But how many organisations actually know and understand how this kind of unconscious bias can impact on recruitment and development, and at its worst, lead to perfectly capable candidates not being put forward for a job or progressing in their organisation as they should?

And how many recruiters would openly acknowledge they have their own biases where someone’s name, age or religion for example could prejudice their view of a candidate?

While concrete steps have been taken by many businesses to engage actively with minority groups or older workers for example, there is still a way to go to educate recruiters of the impact that unconscious bias can have. While it may not be possible to ever completely eradicate bias, there are a number of practical steps companies can take to minimise its effects.

Examples of such steps are ‘blind’ application forms that do not ask for factors such as religion or sex to be disclosed, training and education of interviewers in the actual concept of unconscious bias and the use of psychometric simulations of work, such as the tests from the ABLE Series, which assess candidates’ current and potential ability actually to do the job that is being selected for. These can all help reduce unconscious bias affecting the workplace.

It is also possible for some well known psychometric assessments to be biased. For example, some tests with a higher verbal content tend to favour women as they have on average a better vocabulary and higher verbal fluency than men. On the other hand, diagrammatic- and numeracy-based tests can penalise women from certain age groups and backgrounds because these women hold the idea that they are not good at any abstract task involving numbers or diagrams. Their assessment of themselves therefore becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Ensuring recruitment and development is fair and even for all is a constantly evolving process, and unconscious bias is another layer that needs to be explored. While it may not always be comfortable to examine ourselves inwardly and think about the pre-conceived ideas we might hold, acknowledging that this kind of bias exists and working to address it is a worthwhile step in the direction of creating more inclusive workplaces.

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