Bias? By us? Opening our eyes to prejudice in recruitment

Posted 04 November 2013 by
Gaby Walker, Support R&D Consultant, OPP; and Rob Bailey, Managing Consultant, R&D, OPP
Successful interview

Next time you are looking for a CEO for your company, we suggest you put the following line in your person specification: “Must be over six feet tall.” (For European readers this is over 183cm).

We hope you agree.

Actually, we don’t.

We hope:

We know you wouldn’t do anything like that.

So why are the majority of corporate CEOs in the United States over six feet tall?

We’ll return to this question later.

As working professionals, we like to think we make objective hiring decisions, but in reality our impressions and judgements of others are often coloured by bias, based on ‘gut feeling’, or upon subjective judgement. In recruitment, bias can lead to poor hiring decisions, the implications of which include financial costs and possible legal consequences.

Despite biases having a negative connotation, they do serve an important function: they help us to ‘fill in the gaps’ by making assumptions, which enable us to quickly make sense of a vast amount of information. Over time, based on experience, we create preconceived notions of people, places, and things; this creates preconceptions and stereotypes. Therefore bias is very difficult to avoid, can sometimes be useful, but is frequently problematical when making quick decisions about complex things: ie people.

Let’s return to our opening theme: the common bias that ‘taller people make better leaders’. A study carried out by Judge and Cable found that many men in leadership roles are at least six feet tall. In the US, 60% of all Corporate CEOs are over six feet tall, although only 15% of American men are over six feet. Does this mean that height plays a part in good leadership? Not necessarily, but it does play a part in stereotyping a good leader. Consciously or not, it has become a consistent criterion in leader selection.

If we always base hiring decisions on such stereotypes, we risk overlooking the best candidates, which could be a costly recruitment mistake. Poor recruitment results in time and money being wasted on: training; dealing with lower productivity; dismissal procedures; and further recruitment.

Everyone, including HR practitioners, needs to accept the fact that humans are prone to bias, and to embrace methods of minimising it in the hiring process. Increasing your awareness is a good starting point, which means recognising the most common biases in hiring:

Being aware of bias is just the first step in minimising its negative effect in the hiring process. In a future blog post we will discuss what it is that makes the hiring process so vulnerable to bias, and look at solutions to overcome this. In the meantime, more information can be found in OPP’s paper: ‘Combating bias in hiring decisions’.

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