What we call ‘unconscious bias’ in the hiring process is responsible for a lack of diversity and inclusion in organisations. So how can businesses, HR professionals and recruiters work to eliminate unconscious bias in their workplace culture?

What works and what doesn’t? What are the challenges of identifying and educating about unconscious bias in yourself and your organisation’s hiring culture? Have you had to address any difficult realisations about your OWN unconscious bias when hiring?

Read on for our expert tips and insightful comments from a number of leading companies working to eliminate unconscious bias in hiring.

Fighting “the fascism in our heads”

Firstly, what is unconscious bias? What the hippies of the 1960’s counterculture used to call ‘the fascism in our heads’ was given scientific legitimacy around twenty years ago, via a landmark paper published by a team of social psychologists at the University of Washington and Yale.

The ground-breaking Implicit Association Test (IAT) set out to reveal people’s subconscious attitudes towards others, hailed as “a new tool that measures the unconscious roots of prejudice” that affected 90 to 95 per cent of people.

Unconscious bias — particularly when it comes to race, gender, age, education and class — continues to seep into millions of daily decisions that affect recruitment, hiring and diversity (or the lack of) within businesses and organisations.

Tip #1 — Be more adventurous in your hiring

It is unlikely that, even with the best training on unconscious bias, any businesses are going to completely eliminate it from the hiring process. Yet by understanding how it works, both at an individual and wider organisational level, there are a few proven ways in which you can reduce its negative impact on your hiring.

Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, the tip that many experts offer is that you need to “stop recruiting people who feel safe and who look, feel and sound just like you do,” as Helen Jamieson, Founder and CEO of Jaluch HR & Training explains.

Jamieson’s consultancy delivers training on this very subject to the likes of Citibank, Prudential and Police forces, and time and time again she tells her clients that they need to be more adventurous in their hiring.

“Know it’s great to recruit people who look, feel and sound quite different. We need to all learn to be more comfortable with those who are ‘different’ to ourselves,” she explains.

“Are you offering them the job because you think they will be a good business fit or because they are the best for the role as described? My experience is that a ‘face that fits’ often trumps ‘skills that fit’ and that needs to be challenged.

“Educate managers and recruiters about what unconscious bias is and how it manifests. Don’t be surprised if people demonstrate their biases if you’ve not taken the time to educate them.”

Tip #2 — Bring the unconscious into the conscious

Secondly, if we are unable or struggle to find our own individual unconscious biases in the course of hiring and recruiting for new positions, then it is unlikely that we are going to be able to start to understand, challenge or change them for the better.

“The first step to overcoming unconscious bias is to bring it into the conscious,” says Liza Andersin, HR Director at findcourses.co.uk. “Challenging hirers to step back, look at themselves and acknowledge what biases they bring to the table is difficult but vital. You’re all human after all and being human brings bias — however, this doesn’t mean you have to abide by it.”

Andersin suggests that recruiters and employers try to follow a number of practical tips in order to achieve this. “In addition to the essentials of a diverse interview panel and non-discriminatory interview questions, we’ve found holding hirers accountable through a well-defined and recorded key selection criteria during the interview process helps to minimise bias significantly.

“What helps, even more, is taking the recorded responses and bringing them to a third party, who wasn’t present at the interview process, to independently assess. While this is a time-consuming process that involves many staff, the results of fairness and equal opportunity are worth it.’

Tip #3 — Learn to take a long hard look at your own biases

Obviously, being able to recognise unconscious bias in the workplace, and in ourselves, is half the battle.

Unconscious bias will always have an impact on the decisions we make, it’s a part of who we are and what makes us individual,” says James Larter, MD of RoleplayUK, who offer a range of role-play based training initiatives to help businesses counter the problem.

“Through raising awareness of what makes us react in a certain way, we can certainly start to shift from unconscious exclusion to a more conscious inclusion. If we appreciate the reasons behind our own behaviour more, we can start to take greater responsibility for the consequence of our decisions.

“By developing engaging training solutions with Unconscious Bias at their heart, organisations can effectively help individuals to not only identify Unconscious Bias not only in their own decisions, but also in those of work colleagues. With the right training, they can develop appropriate tools and strategies to ‘call it out’ with confidence whenever necessary.”

Perhaps one of the most fundamental challenges in addressing unconscious bias, is the fact that it requires many of us to start to ‘unpack’ some pretty uncomfortable home truths about our own biases.

“Well, as for my own unconscious biases,” reveals Helen Jamieson, courageously. “I have spent a lifetime battling my own limiting beliefs that have come about as a result of the way I have been brought up, educated and treated during my adult life. I have experienced unconscious bias from parents, family members, friends, teachers, university lecturers and so on… and an endless stream of low expectations because you are a women and mother hugely impact self-esteem and self-confidence.

“I am aware at times, that despite my own battles with limiting beliefs and the fact that I give presentations on diversity, that I too tend to assume greater intelligence, competence and potential in male job applicants or male suppliers pitching for business. It’s crazy that I can’t overcome my own prejudices towards people just like me despite the experiences I have had. But I work hard at it to try to ensure those biases don’t impact my decision making in the workplace.”

Tip #4 — Raise awareness of how we engage with others

“It’s fair to say that unconscious bias comes into our decision-making process each and every day; we instinctively respond to everyday situations, form opinions, make judgements and choices, working from our own internal memory database of personal experiences,” adds RoleplayUK boss, James Larter.

“There’s nothing to say whether those decisions are right or wrong, or what the consequence of acting differently might have been, but it is important to build a deeper understanding of what made us behave that way, and make those choices.

“And that comes down to raising awareness of how we engage with others; a need to move decision making from the unconscious, to a conscious balanced process. Which is where we think drama-based techniques, such as roleplay, realplay and forum theatre offer highly effective tools to achieve exactly this.

“By presenting simulated scenarios and workplace conversations, individuals can experience first-hand the impact of personal behaviours on others and start to understand how tone of voice, choice of language, and body language can be interpreted by others.

“Done well, individuals identify with certain character traits; for some it’s a light bulb moment and feedback from participants often includes ‘I could see myself reacting exactly that way!’ The learning takes on real meaning, when they can redirect the simulated to scene to a more successful conclusion.”

Tip#5 — Use software and AI to counter unconscious bias

It’s interesting to look at a number of artificial intelligence (AI) software solutions that are being developed and used to help organisations and businesses, both big and small, to counter the negative impact of unconscious bias.

Huge multinationals such as Cisco and Johnson & Johnson, for example, use a programme called Textio in their recruitment that removes unconsciously ‘gendered words’ from job listings in order to minimise influence over any specific gender of applicant.

J&J has also recently rolled out an extensive unconscious bias training programme in collaboration with a Harvard University professor. While other diversity initiatives promote the use of things such as gender decoders.

“Use a gender decoder to check for gender bias in job ads, role descriptions and so on,” advises Farrah Qureshi, founder of Global Diversity Practice, who cites both the above-mentioned Textio and this online gender decoder software.

“Many of our clients have used it and surprised themselves. You could also look at software that enables “blind” recruitment, with a good example being TribePad.”

“Look at the diversity (or otherwise) of those doing the hiring,” Querish adds. “This may seem obvious yet so many times it doesn’t happen, or is tokenistic to create the appearance that a diverse group is involved in the decision on new hires.

“Be really clear what you’re recruiting for, and what good/brilliant would look like in terms of attitude, experience, skills and so on. This needs to happen BEFORE anything else, so that it underpins the role description, advert, shortlisting, interview etc. It is often said that companies lose 50 per cent of the best candidates at shortlisting because they are not really clear what they want and/or are swayed by what they read in applications. Then they lose the other 50 per cent by using the blunt instrument otherwise known as the job interview, without anything that truly tests candidates against what was previously the true requirement.”

Educate, respect, compromise and be resilient

“Artificial Intelligence used in recruitment can help to reduce unconscious bias — for example, by ‘blinding’ applications so that applicants are judged on their skills rather than their demographic characteristics,” says Sarah Cooper, Head of Recruitment at Connor.

“It has many other benefits too: by automating time-consuming tasks such as manually screening applications and scheduling interviews with candidates, we’re less likely to lose the best talent to competitors.

“But there are very real dangers to consider. AI can often work against diversity because it’s designed to find patterns in previous behaviour. There is no doubt that AI can and will revolutionise the recruitment process, but there always needs to be a human element underpinning it.

Simply having an awareness that unconscious bias may exist is the first step. It’s a good idea to set diversity goals for hiring so that, at the outset, the issue is at the forefront of the agenda. It’s also important that the process isn’t simply a tick-box exercise. Diversity is as much about differing perspectives and life experiences as it is about gender, ethnicity and religion.

“After all, it is very much within the interests of organisations to have more gender diverse senior teams — FTSE350 companies with more diverse executive teams have on average 50% higher profitability.”

The bottom line is this. In order to eliminate unconscious bias in your organisation you need to be continually educating yourself and your employees, offering training solutions which make individuals truly think, and be aware of why they reach certain decisions.

“Importantly, we need to give individuals the understanding, skills and practice they need to carry out their roles fairly, be that making balanced interview decisions, delivering inclusive customer service or building effective, productive teams,” explains RolePlayUK boss, James Larter.

Whilst Jaluch founder, Helen Jamieson is even more adamant on the power of great training.

“Educate, educate, educate. One 60 min session is not enough. It needs to be ongoing education and a culture that encourages open discussion and learning.”

Jamieson’s simple three-step approach is this:

1. Respect (take time to teach your staff about respect i.e. to learn about other views, learn to listen to them. You don’t have to agree with them but respect is listening to others without thinking your way or your view is the only way).

2. Compromise — know that there is no such thing as perfection. Give a little, take a little, know that one day someone will get their way and perhaps tomorrow you will get yours. Less “superchicken” in the approach to creating and managing a team!

3. Be Resilient — it’s not just about not showing bias but developing our own and others’ resilience so that if at any point they feel they have been on the receiving end of bias they can say so in a respectful way and resolve the issue without immediately resorting to the law. Staff with low resilience often behave like victims and this, in turn, creates bigger issues when bias occurs than might otherwise be the case.

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