Can the Government's 'business compact' have an effect on unconscious bias?

Posted 29 February 2012 by

Nick Clegg has recently announced the launch of the Government’s ‘business compact’. This is a drive to end ‘who you know not what you know’ recruitment and eliminate selection bias based on a candidate’s gender, ethnicity or social background.

This is clearly a huge task; we all have stereotypes based on these categories. Clegg’s solution is to ask for ‘blind‘ CVs which do not feature a candidate’s name and educational background. Is this the best way to achieve an unbiased recruitment process?

The principle of avoiding bias should be commended, and the fact that many big name businesses have signed up to the compact is, of course, good news as it shows a commitment to more objective and fair recruitment in the future.

However, are the underlying problems that are caused by unconscious bias, which is at the centre of the problem, simply being pushed further down the line? There’s nothing to stop biased recruiters eliminating applicants they deem to be unsuitable for whatever reason later in the process when previously hidden information is out there for them to see.

The reason we all hold stereotypes or assumptions about groups and their individual members is to help us process information more quickly. As the Nobel Prize winning psychologist, Daniel Kahneman has put it, we have two systems that drive the way we think and make decisions. One system is fast and intuitive and the other slower and more logical. Stereotypes are part of the fast system and the social norm against stereotyping which Clegg is invoking fails to recognize the value of stereotypes. There can be valid as well as invalid stereotypes and neglecting valid stereotypes can result in poor judgements. In addition, if we are denied relevant information, a vacuum is created that we fill by guessing using our intuitive system. The result is that our judgments could end up being more distorted and inaccurate than they might have been had we had all the facts in front of us to start with.

If businesses really want to help eradicate selection bias then there are steps that they can take. Are their recruiters aware of the general nature of bias and have they had any training on this topic? Have they been taught a range of valid stereotypes? The real facts about the “normal” education, competencies and attitudes of men and women from different ethnic and social backgrounds are interesting and positive for any employer. Training can also examine processes of judgment and decision making and help selectors better use their intuitive and logical decision making systems more effectively. It can also inform the design of a selection system that makes data collection and decision making more transparent. Are all recruiters asking all applicants the same questions so that interviews are standardized? Do all recruiters work independently and only bring their data together in a meeting that is run according to strict rules?

There is still a lot of work to be done to ensure that applicants from all backgrounds are given a fair chance when applying for a job. The business compact has done a lot to bring mainstream attention to the issues that are currently preventing this from happening. While this is good news in itself, it is unlikely the compact alone will prevent invalid stereotyping unless it is a good deal more prescriptive and works with, rather than against, the human tendency to categorise others.

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