Over the years the recruitment and interview process has changed to conform with legal obligations so that fair and non-discriminatory practices should become commonplace. We must all be able to demonstrate reasons for hiring or declining applicants based on factual data and objective opinions.
Being governed by these laws means we don’t discriminate against any individuals or groups of people based on protected characteristics such as race or gender, but what about unconscious bias, and where does this fit in?
What is Unconscious Bias?
Occurring more frequently than recruiters may be aware, unconscious bias can be just as harmful to a company’s brand and reputation as conscious discrimination if left unchecked.
It is unfortunately a product of stereotyping and making uninformed assumptions, placing people into categories having only met them briefly or from only knowing a few details about them. It’s thought to be a reflexive reaction that our brains use to identify patterns in people; we tend to judge people who are different from us, unconsciously determining whether or not they are a threat.
Unconscious bias can affect our perceptions of other people in different ways. We tend to accept stereotypes that have been formed historically or perhaps in the media and television. For example, not associating a CEO role with someone young, or a manual labour role like construction with a female. It can also be attributing a stereotype to a person based on their name or where they grew up, or even what their personal interests are.
These stereotypes can set an expectation that shouldn’t exist and have no bearing on the candidate’s ability to do the job. So, while a company potentially misses out on exceptional talent, candidates can rightfully feel unfairly rejected, leading to uncapped fines or tribunal claims if they choose to pursue them.
Fortunately, the discussion surrounding unconscious bias is now happening and organisations are taking steps to educate their recruiters on what may be affecting their judgement, and how changes need to be made both systematically and personally.
The effects of unconscious bias can be greater than seen in the news or media, as it doesn’t just come at a monetary cost, but emotional too. Where the information being used to make decisions is largely inaccurate, choosing who to hire using anything other than fact-based evidence can have lasting repercussions.
Consequences of Unconscious Bias
The Organisation – The consequences an organisation can face can be severe. In a recent tribunal case, judgement was made in favour of a middle-aged father, when it was agreed that he was discriminated against because of his age and gender and was subsequently denied a position with a sector of the NHS Trust for which he was highly qualified. He was awarded damages after it was ruled that he had been treated unfairly as a result of both conscious and unconscious bias.
Mr M Clements told the London South Employment Tribunal that, following a phone call with his recruiter and would-be manager, Dr Charlotte Lee, he believed that his qualification for the role was dismissed in favour for his perceived “fit” in a team full of younger women. Mr Clements scored highest on the interview assessment alone.
It was found that Dr Lee had neither been with the organisation long, nor had either interviewer training or experience prior to this. Where a conscious decision had been made to not hire Mr Clements, an unconsciously biased precedent had been set as the previous post-holder had also been a younger female.
By definition, interviewers will be unaware that they may be displaying unconscious bias, but for the organisation involved this isn’t a defence in terms of a discrimination claim, so there needs to be more accountability to prevent it from happening.
Of course, the fines and court cases are only part of the problem and are highly damaging to the organisation’s reputation, shareholders and stakeholders can potentially withdraw due to negative associations. On top of this, there can be losses in marketing opportunities especially from organisations who support a diverse and culturally inclusive workforce.
In terms of recruitment, if unconscious bias in interviews is left unchecked with hiring managers, it can lead to higher recruitment costs and increasing employee turnover rates. (It costs the average UK employer around £30,000 a year to replace an employee – a study from Oxford Economics)
The idea of recruiting the right person for the role means employing people who will thrive and build their career over a period of time. When a hiring manager employs a person they see as “best fit”, the long-term objectives of the organisations are not being considered and they may not have the same career desires as someone who is better experienced and qualified for the role.
The Interviewee – The aftereffects of being rejected for a role when unconscious bias is suspected have greater repercussions on the applicant on a personal level. It is common practice to ask recruiters for feedback from the interview and reasons for being unsuccessful in getting the job, but they may be surprised to hear that an attribute or trait has been the reason.
Armed with this information, some may choose to shy away from confrontation than face it head on, but if it’s not brought to the attention of a company’s Human Resources department, neither the interviewers nor the organisation will be held accountable for their illegal practice or be given the opportunity at the least to correct their errors.
The results of discrimination can ultimately lead to demoralisation, with suitably qualified applicants questioning their own capabilities or characteristics, and potentially missing out on further developmental opportunities in their chosen field.
The Team – In most organisations, current employees don’t have a say in new recruitment decisions, but this doesn’t mean they aren’t affected by them. When a hiring manager unknowingly uses unconscious bias to decide on successful applicants, they make the assumptions on what would work best with their existing team without using concrete evidence to inform their decision.
Diversity and inclusivity are very much in the headlines at the moment, and not only is it in the interests of fair practice to present the same opportunities to all, but it’s also important for continued company success.
How? In a 2014 study by McKinsey, top-quartile companies with a racially and ethnically diverse workforce were reported to be 35% more likely to have higher financial returns than their industry counterparts, and 15% more likely with a gender diverse workforce.
A further study by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in 2018 noted that out of 1700 companies in different countries, businesses that had a more diverse management team reported 19% higher revenue due to innovation.
The evidence concludes that with more diversity, organisations are able to invite attract better talent and make smarter business decisions. Where teams are comprised of people from different backgrounds, ages and genders, new perspectives are offered with potentially innovative ideas to help increase team productivity and enjoyment for the role.
It isn’t just about reaching diversity quotas anymore; Adopting fairer and more structured policies and a culture of inclusivity is ultimately what makes employees feel valued and more satisfied, which all starts with breaking the cycle of unconscious bias in the workplace.