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Overcoming Unconscious Bias in Recruitment and Selection

by Dec 1, 2020

Australia is proud to identify as a vibrant, contemporary, and multicultural society, claiming its people have stemmed from more than 270 different ancestries.   So, with this diversity of cultures, surely the workforce should also represent an inclusive and diversified mix of talent too?  Apparently – not.   According to numerous studies and research across Australia and globally, even in these modern times, minority and disadvantaged groups are still being treated unequally.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) report of November 2019, approximately one third of new migrants to Australia experienced some difficulty in securing their first job, citing a lack of Australian work experience, limited contacts/networks or language difficulties as the three main reasons.  The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) highlights in a 2019 report that 48% of working-age people with a disability have a lower employment rate compared to those without a disability (80%).

 

What is unconscious bias?

Much research has been undertaken over the last few decades to understand just how unconscious bias can influence our thoughts and decision-making processes.  Results have told us that unconscious bias seems to be an innate trait that occurs automatically and without intention.  This prejudice for or against others is triggered by our brain and can cloud our assessments.  Factors influencing unconscious bias include our background, cultural environment, and personal experiences.

In recruitment and selection processes gender bias is a very common type of bias. This could relate to societal expectations and perceptions, such as believing only males can perform construction-based roles and childcare workers should be female. Gender bias can also manifest as unequal treatment in employment opportunity based on the sex of the individual such as pay, benefits and promotions.  A report titled “She’s Price(d)less” – jointly authored by KPMG, Diversity Council Australia and Workplace Gender Equality Agency – is a very interesting read outlining the gender pay gaps that still occur across Australia and the more limited promotional opportunities for females at the management level.

Ageism, name bias and disability bias are other very common forms of unconscious bias, with disability bias appearing to be the “leader of the pack” and according to some studies, even overtaking gender bias.

 

Unconscious bias within the recruitment and selection process

Anybody who has worked in a hiring capacity during their career has most probably witnessed or been involved, consciously or unconsciously, in a situation where assumptions have been made based on a person’s ability, age, gender, nationality, culture or even looks.  For instance, I can recall a line manager in a large retail chain openly declaring that he prefers not to recruit females in their mid-20’s “in case she falls pregnant or needs to take extra time off to care for sick children, or do the school pick-ups!”

Unfortunately, age is also another common bias, with a belief that a younger employee could be “more dynamic,” “learn faster” and “fit in with our culture.”  Similarly, the more mature applicant can be viewed as probably “winding down”, “slower to pick up new technology” or “unable to adapt to change”.

Generational bias has gained significant attention (and concern) over recent years, with generations having misconceptions about generations different to their own.  Take the Millennials, also known as Gen Y (those roughly born in the early 1980’s to late 1990’s), they are often viewed by older generations as “lazy”, “have poor worth ethics”, “disloyal” and/or “job hopping for a slight increase in pay!”.  Tarring a whole generation with the same brush is both unfair and untrue.

Bias in some form or another occurs very frequently within the interview process. So how can we avoid unconscious bias in our recruitment and selection processes?

 

Avoiding unconscious bias in recruitment and selection

Organisations that are seriously striving towards an inclusive and diverse workplace could start by looking at their current hiring processes and this cannot be overstated.  If you are a hiring manager or internal recruiter or HR Manager, you can help your organisation to achieve this by following the next seven steps:

    • Engaging diverse perspectives at each stage of the recruitment process from writing job descriptions and developing selection criteria to advertising, application processes, shortlisting, interviews and follow up. Involving more diverse staff or even external advisers can ensure that unconscious bias and assumptions are mitigated at each stage.
    • Creating a job description that clearly focusses on the core requirements of the job and the skills, knowledge and other personal qualities actually required to perform those duties. It is often important to encourage genuine questioning of selection criteria so that old assumptions about how a job will be performed can be challenged if appropriate.  The advertisement and job description should actively encourage applicants from diverse backgrounds to apply, reiterating that the recruitment and selection process will be conducted using a fair, transparent process based on the key capabilities required of the role.
    • Ensuring hiring managers/recruiters/panel members have insight into their own unconscious bias. Training in this area would heighten this awareness.
    • Establishing behavioural interview questions and standardised benchmarks prior to interviewing and making sure they are consistently adhered to during the interview.
    • Avoiding hasty hiring decisions and listening to opinions of each of the interviewers, ensuring one person does not dominate the process or the decision making.
    • Utilising multiple sources of evidence (e.g. psychometric assessments, written work tasks and comprehensive referee checks) and making sure this evidence is taken into consideration before a decision is made.
    • Taking care not to appoint purely based on perceived cultural fit. Numerous studies have demonstrated that hiring based on culture fit can be highly subjective. For example, an applicant may have built a strong rapport during the interview resulting in the interviewers thinking, “I’d love to work with that person” and not assessing them on the basis of meeting or demonstrating the core capabilities of the role. 

Identify your own unconscious bias

Being more aware of your own unconscious bias is a positive step forward when undertaking recruitment and selection activities.  Being open-minded and listening to others from differing backgrounds, generations, ability and race can help all involved in the recruitment and selection process to understand potential bias from a different perspective.  For instance, I noticed that many applicants of Asian and Arabic descent change their first name on their resumes to make it sound more Western.  When I questioned a colleague (of Indian descent) why this occurred, she explained that she has also done this in the past when she first came to Australia due to the difficulties she had in initially securing an interview.  Once she changed her first name to a more Anglicised version of her original name, she quickly secured an interview.  Being aware of this name bias has led me to be more open-minded when reviewing applications, to keep any such bias I have in check.

An online assessment called the Implicit Association Test (IAT), is also another way to check our own potential biases.  First introduced in 1998, by a team of US based scientists, this test has been extensively used over the last couple of decades “to investigate biases in racial groups, gender, sexuality, age, and religion, as well as assessing self-esteem”.  Although the test has been questioned by some schools of thought due to the test re-test validity scales, the results are thought provoking.  A version of the IAT hosted by Harvard University provides an insight into our own unconscious bias. Acknowledging that we all have some form of unconscious bias helps us to make more conscious decisions when hiring new team members.

Building a truly diverse workforce is not possible if unconscious bias in recruitment and selection practices is overlooked.  There are concrete steps that can be taken in terms of designing and conducting the  recruitment and selection process itself to avoid bias, conscious or unconscious.  It is also imperative that managers and supervisors involved in selection and recruitment processes have the necessary self-awareness to identify their own individual unconscious biases.  This awareness can be enhanced through training.

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Overcome unconscious bias

Does your organisation need support to implement more inclusive and diverse recruitment and selection practices? Talk to the team at Merit Solutions for consulting support and customised training in unconscious bias.

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