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CIPD Podcast 136 - How biased are you? How unconscious bias plays into recruitment
Date: 01/05/018 | Duration: 00:19:49
Recruitment is a fundamental process for every organisation. Get it right and it can strengthen company culture, improve productivity and performance, and positively impact well-being and diversity. Get it wrong and the negative effects can be far-reaching for individuals, teams and organisations.
So how do HR professionals ensure that their recruitment processes are fair and unbiased and so attract the best talent?
In this episode we talk to three HR experts about the impact of unconscious bias on recruitment. We look at how unconscious bias can creep into to any decision-making process and offer advice on what HR and managers can do to address the effects of unconscious bias in their organisations, particularly at the point of recruitment.
View the full podcast transcript
Alasdair Scott: So at any given moment we’re bombarded by around 11 million different insights or inputs into our brains.
Philippa Lamb: This is Alasdair Scott.
AS: We can only really handle 40 of them at one time.
PL: He's a business psychologist and inclusion specialist.
AS: And so we use heuristics to manage that data and to manage those inputs. Now of course they can be really, really helpful, when we walk into a room we can see perhaps a blond person or a black man and we can put them in those boxes and that's nice. But those boxes are pretty biased and it comes from a very organic, natural place, because as human beings we’re trying to make our lives easier.
PL: Unconscious bias is the focus of this episode, the first in the two-part diversity series and recruitment is the starting point according to Ksenia Zheltoukhova who’s Head of Research and Thought Leadership at the CIPD.
Ksenia Zheltoukhova: Our unconscious bias can create a certain environment in the organisation and we became to say that's normal so if people look around and they only see a particular type of person around them they begin to think that this is the kind of person that is successful in this organisation and therefore continue to conform with that type of norm furthering the lack of diversity in organisations.
PL: And just in recruit that image.
KZ: Exactly. This is why the interest in unconscious bias is very strongly linked to recruitment because this is the main source of new types of people in our organisations and if we fail to recruit for diverse candidates this is how diversity issues in organisations perpetuate.
PL: So how does unconscious bias actually work?
AS: I put it down as two different things you’re either in the one up group or you're in the one down group, okay? The one up group, those individuals who perhaps are dominant, are in positions of power and the one down groups are those individuals who are either subject to any discrimination off the back of those individuals in the one up group. So people in the one down group are people like women, various sexual orientations, race that is not white. Now those individuals that a lot of the time are subject to our biases. Now it doesn’t just stop there because actually there are other more interesting nuances in our biases that go beyond just these characteristics. So there are things like white pumps or shiny shoes, right? You look at me quite confused.
PL: No I think I'm getting this it’s stuff you don't like.
AS: Stuff you don't like. The thing about this is where does that come from?
PL: Now regardless of whether it’s about shiny shoes or any other differentiator unconscious bias can work both positively and negatively.
KZ: We can decide not to give someone an opportunity because we ascribe certain characteristics to them that they don't necessarily have, but that also means we can favour someone unfairly because we think they have positive characteristics, again that they don't necessarily hold.
PL: And it’s not only the obvious protected characteristics like race, gender, sexual orientation that we need to be aware of here.
KZ: People may discriminate against someone just because they think in different ways or they think at a different pace, we recently published a guide on how to deal with neuro diversity in the workplace. So this is for example people who have Asperger’s and similar. This is not traditionally what we’ve seen as a protected characteristic in terms of diversity and so the tests and training to deal with those types of biases may not be readily available but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do anything about it.
PL: Well shall we turn this on the head then and look for solutions.
PL: So starting at the beginning or this process, your ad, your shout out for people to join your organisation there's pitfalls right there aren’t there with the language.
PL: Gendered language, stuff around asking for competitive and determined people tends to bring in male candidates.
PL: Lots of stuff around that?
AS: Absolutely. It’s really funny actually I was looking at a website last week and it was for a tech company and I was doing a bit of an audit on their attraction, one it’s full of language that's incomprehensible and if you look at the kind of roles that they are advertising right now many of them are not in that sort of tech data space, many of them are recruiting into their people team.
PL: So they don't need to be technical in their language?
AS: Don't need to be technical in that language. Their technical, software skills which they are looking for so talent managers, L&D professionals, they’re looking for a chief people officer at the moment too. Certainly it’s alienating so that even that assumption that you’re going to understand I guess what an SSIOS is, I've no idea what it is, it’s ridiculous. Then you go into the imagery and the website. So it’s a soft thing. So full of white men, white, middle-aged men. So if you’re someone who’s either an ethnic minority or you’re a woman - this is a very ambitions start-up and they’ve missed the mark already.
PL: And when you said all this to this client were they surprised?
AS: I've not said it yet.
PL: You haven’t said it yet.
AS: I’m sharpening the claws right now.
PL: So you sort out the language in your job ad. Next you need to think hard about where you advertise because that choice can invite bias into the process too.
KZ: Certain age groups may be more likely to use particular channels, especially social media. I think it’s less of a problem now than compared to when we did the research a few years ago but still being aware of what type of candidate is most likely to come across your job advert is useful.
PL: Okay the ad goes out applicants apply with their CVs but not so fast CVs are a very unreliable route to diversity.
AS: What you don't know about me is my background is not creational psychology so my bread and butter is in the science of people at work and it’s been long understood within that community that things like CVs and references are the least valid predictors of performance in the recruitment process because they’ve got their biases not just from the characteristics that you see, identifiable characteristics, but also the applicant’s own manipulation of their experience as well and how they’ve positioned themselves, perhaps elevated their role as well.
PL: So the embroidering aspects of CVs.
AS: The embroidering. So personally if I was going to be quite blunt about it I don't think CVs should be used in a recruitment process period.
PL: But people need some data don't they about their candidates?
AS: You can get data about candidates but you can be a bit more smart about it. So you can be using scientific data in your recruitment process. So again going back to psychology you could start using things like measuring individual differences or beyond CV. So you can be looking at motivation, personality, your value sets.
PL: On the other hand Ksenia argues there is good evidence that blind CVs do have merit. And we should probably explain for people who don't know what a blind CV is.
AS: Yeah so a blind CV is basically that you kind of omit the CV process all together or you take away any identifying characteristics from the CV.
PL: So no names.
AS: No names, no addresses, no date of birth if you have one, no pictures, no nothing.
KZ: And we found that anonymising Cvs is an effective intervention for increasing diversity in organisations and reducing bias in recruitment. So that's one of the things we recommend our practitioners do consider. Anonymised CVs on their own are not going to solve the problem but what you might consider is using CVs or anonymised CVs as a gateway.
PL: A gateway to what exactly?
KZ: Now you have to realise you won't solve all problems at once and so there is bigger work to be done by learning and development practitioners but also more broadly by people leaders in terms of how they foster the inclusive climate, inclusive culture in their organisations. And unconscious bias is just part of it. All types of
people, practices and policies send a message to employees on whether they would feel they will be included or not in that organisation. And so I would suggest that if that's not even a bigger task for the practitioners that they consider their strategies and approaches as a whole as well as focusing on unconscious bias training as a specific intervention.
PL: Jon Dawson is HRD at Mandarin Oriental. He told me how they devised a very creative version of blind CVs for a big hotel recruitment drive.
Jon Dawson: Well I was opening a hotel and we had to recruit 250 people and what we actually did as a first recruitment event we actually hired an art gallery in Fitzrovia in London, it’s a creative area and the brand was very creative and we actually hired this art gallery and we told all the line managers, what we’re going to do is do a recruitment event and all you need to do is be here, at this time and this date and we’ll bring the people and we’ll go from there.
PL: And just mingle.
JD: And just mingle. Well the managers were actually expecting us to come with CVs to hand out. Some of the managers then, when we had no CVs said, “Well how are we going to know about these people?” and we said, “Well what actually we want you to do is anyone that has a name badge is a guest and has come to find out more about this brand we’re creating, anyone that doesn’t have a name badge obviously works for Addition Hotels and we want you to mingle.” And the first hand went up from the front office manager and he said, “Well how do I know where they want to work and what experience they’ve got?” and I said, “Well that's the whole point.”
PL: Ask them?
JD: “All we want you to do is write down their name and get into some really engaging conversations.” What some of the managers didn’t know is the majority of the people and CVs that had first come through the door, had got no hospitality experience whatsoever. And what actually happened at that event, after all the invitees had gone, the managers were just so passionate, “Wow, I spoke to Sarah, I spoke to John, they were fantastic and I can't wait to get their CV tomorrow morning.” So when we did the wrap up and gave them the CV it was sort of, “Wow they’ve never worked in hotels or hospitality before!” and we said, “Well if we’d have given you that CV first would you have considered them?” “Hmm probably not!” That was one of the most successful events I ever did. There was around 150 people we invited to that event and the hire ratio was 78%.
PL: And then that brings me to that thought that has been raised in the interviews we’ve done in this podcast were people saying you need to standardise interview questions and you need to do score card marking, is if you don't then that unconscious bias creeps right in even in the best intended things you find someone you like, that likeability thing creeps in and before you know it you’re thinking, ‘Yeah, yeah that's the girl for the job.’ What do you think?
JD: The model that we created from that talent event was very, very much…the first conversation was those natural conversations where you get that gut feeling, I really want this. But then when you look at how we want to make up that team you need
different characteristics and that's the second part of the interview process, so it wasn’t just a case of a talent event and they’ve come in and got the job.
PL: No I get that but you were from a much more standardised way after that
JD: Yeah so when they actually came in we developed a competency framework around standardisation. And again there were two different interviews, the line manager then interviewed with a HR professional and then there was a final stage of the interview process which was the general manager or hotel manager. So the time to fill did take considerably longer but the results in the end were outstanding.
PL: It’s natural to gravitate towards people you gel with but there's good data to support the theory that employers hire people they like best on a personal level. So natural chemistry is a red flag. But how do you bias-proof your interview process?
AS: So telephone interviews. So I like to call telephone interviews the voice of the recruitment world. You laugh so the telephone shows the voice, you don't see the person so you don't see any body language, you don't see any things that they’re wearing, so of course you can't be biased. Of course you can! People’s tone, their pitch, and particularly in the UK, their accent. And so again back to cultural programming, some accents we just don't like that much although there are some accents we really like. So, I forget where it was from but there were statistics that suggest that the majority of people in the UK find, I hate to say Scousers, the Liverpudlian accent, aggressive, unintelligent and untrustworthy.
PL: And Geordies are the good guys.
AS: Are the good guys. Or people from Inverness apparently as well.
PL: Oh really ((laughs))
AS: Yeah apparently ((laughs)). Now I'm from Inverness, I just wanted to say that.
PL: So you’re all good then.
AS: But what happens, again it’s implicit, people don't realise why do I have this regard for people from Liverpool? But that will put that person after that telephone interview firmly in the ‘no’ pile.
PL: But of course face-to-face interviews are an ideal stage for our biases to play out on.
AS: Crazy hair, Albert Einstein would go in the ‘no’ bucket.
AS: Long hair on a man, Richard Branson would go in the ‘no’ bucket. Blond women, Marissa Mayer would go in the ‘no’ bucket because people might think, ‘Blond they look…’
AS: Ditsy. So these fantastic people I've just mentioned because of people’s prejudices about half of amazing people would be disregarded by the recruitment process.
PL: So avoid looking at likeability and, says Ksenia, ask everyone the same questions.
KZ: So having a very structured set of questions that you ask candidates at further stages of recruitment so they all have a fair chance of performing well.
PL: So is that standardised questions?
KZ: Yeah that's it so you have an interview guide that makes sure you ask candidates the same questions across and also that you use the interview process to gather data and make decisions towards, rather than making the decision in the process.
PL: There's a great fondness I think in all of us for the organic interview isn’t there, the wide-ranging, let’s see how it plays out, interview, full of pitfalls presumably?
AS: Totally, absolutely. I'm split between this actually.
PL: So the suggestion is you standardise questions, you mark them with score cards, so ideally you eradicate bias.
AS: You’re objective in that, it’s an objective process. Now there's pitfalls in each solution because you do want to get a sense of the individual and the personality. Now we know a couple of the limitations of objective recruitment, interviews rather, is the candidates going out into the marketplace and posting them on things like Glassdoor because you’re asking the same question to all candidates, but on the flipside of that you can do very accurate comparison of two different candidates and get their responses. So for me it’s always a bit like when you’re doing a scientific experience you put that Glassdoor thing in your limitations box. So what you can do is formulate different questions and measure the same phenomena. So you can reposition the question differently. So you can get a bank of ten questions that you know will measure that skill that you’re measuring.
AS: How you have defined teamwork for your organisation is one thing, so what does it look like in, I don't know, British Airways versus Diagio, it can be two very different things, depending on the culture and how they want to work. That's one thing. And then it’s about what’s a good example and a bad example within that culture and that framework. And then that helps you build your scoring criteria and how you've defined it. Once you've built that and you understood what it looks like for your organisation then you can start building questions off the back of it.
PL: I wanted to ask you about gut feeling because this is the thing that people always talk about and I'm intrigued by this because in the course of doing these podcasts, you know obviously we’ve done podcasts about neuroscience, neuroscience practitioners have said to us, “You need to listen to your gut because your gut is telling you itself so you’re not perceiving consciously and it’s good data to lean on. And of course then we’ll encounter people who are talking about unconscious bias and they’ll say, “Absolutely not! You should not be listening to your gut because it’s just telling you all the stuff that you always thought.” Where do you go with gut?
KZ: I would suggest that people need to educate their gut a bit more so unconscious bias can't solve the issues of diversity in organisations and more so the unconscious bias awareness and also unconscious bias training doesn’t tell you which decision to make, it still won't tell you which candidate to hire or which candidate would be best for the job, that's still the manager’s decision. I guess the point of being aware of the different types of people and how this come across is to understand that you might be prone to bias and to take that into account when you make the decision. So perhaps your intuition or your gut is one factor and you may be naturally attracted to a particular candidate or a particular decision in the process but this training is about stopping and asking yourself, ‘Why am I thinking that? Why is my gut telling me to do this?’
PL: Alasdair has a great example of how gut feelings are not to be trusted.
AS: There was a hire manager that I worked with a number of years ago and we were just sat down and this was when I was doing psychometric feedback and giving recommendations and I thought we’d found an amazing candidate for there, like on paper psychometric profile was hitting all the sweet spots and we’d done a lot of work to identify what those sweet spots were – amazing! Didn’t get the job!. And I'm like, that's really, really weird. So I went and had a debrief with the hire manager and I was like, “What happened? They were great!” She goes, “Oh I know yes I know, but there was just something in my gut.” And she said this, “Something in my gut I just don't know what it was.” And I'm like, “Can you elaborate? We can't just use that as evidence.”
PL: Find out!
AS: And she said, “Well Alasdair, you know what it was?” and like, “Yeah really keen to know,” she said, “You know white pumps!”
PL: Black mark ((laughs))
AS: White pumps and I was like, “What?” And she said, “Nobody wears white pumps after August bank holiday weekend!” And I was like, “Oh I'm sorry I didn’t get the memo on that one.”
PL: It’s not easy to identify, let alone eradicate our own biases so how to guard against them. Well Alasdair has a simple fix he thinks two heads are better than one.
AS: Whether you’re an SME or a big organisation just have someone there as your conscience and a sounding board afterwards.
PL: And there's a clear and important role for HR here.
KZ: We expect HR professionals to act as experts on organisational behaviour and cultures and so without having to make decisions for the organisation in terms of the type of culture it wants to strive to or the types of people it wants to recruit, it’s leading those conversations at a very strategic level: what do we expect of our people; how do people fit into our organisation echo system; how do we want us to function; what are our people goals in the next five to seven years; hat are the external trends that are impacting our decisions about people, because even if as an organisation you might take a particular stance on diversity and inclusion societally,
we have certain expectations of businesses and how they act and how they include people in their workforces. So that's an interesting tension for HR to hold as well. So it’s about having that strategic conversation, asking the question, I wouldn’t put it quite so grand as being the conscience of the organisation, but certainly being that educated facilitator of people conversations in the workplace.
PL: Educated facilitators, neatly put. Thanks to Ksenia Zheltoukhova, Alasdair Scott and Jon Dawson.
Next month in part two of our diversity series we’ll be chewing on a tough question, why does it seem to be so much harder to discuss BAME in the workplace than gender? I’ll be joined amongst others by a newcomer to the podcast June Sarpong, MBE, TV presenter turned diversity expert.
Thanks for listening.