Monday, 23 January 2017

The inevitability of bias – can it be overcome?

We’re all biased [you can even test yourself]. Be it through upbringing or social conditioning, we are led to, consciously or unconsciously, believe one attribute is superior to others: Arsenal over Spurs; London over the North; Oxbridge over the Rest. People with white-sounding names are 50% more likely to be called for interview than those without, and if you happen to be female there is still, very much, a glass ceiling (made of men named John, Robert, William and James – no connection – mainly) above you. 

We naturally associate with those with whom we have a shared experience or belief, and have preconceived notions of what a certain attribute means about someone. Worst of all, they’re incredibly difficult to shift.

Hiring managers want the best candidates for the role but does that mean that those who have worked in recognisable organisations before or came from a “top” University are necessarily best suited? How can we ensure that bias doesn’t prevent organisations from hiring the best option?

Unconscious bias, as described above, is the tendency to like or favour those who have similar experiences to ours or look like us etc. These develop to allow us to process information quickly and to make decisions, but in business they can be costly.

Bias works both ways: hiring managers choosing candidates that reflect themselves and candidates choosing not to apply because they have been conditioned to these biases.

“Our aspirations too tend to reflect the current norm and, with relatively few women in key roles, women's unconscious beliefs about career advancement could be holding them back from reaching the top.”[1]

Now, it could be argued that to overcome this problem we just need to dismiss these biases and be more open [there are courses you can go on to do so], but given that most of the problem is unconscious, we need to take a practical approach to tackling it. What can employers, and recruitment companies, do?

The Behavioural Insights Team (or, ‘Nudge’ Unit) apply behavioural science to public policy, in order to encourage people to make better choices. The basic message is that you can make major changes to human behaviour through minor changes to the input e.g. the wording of an email.

In August 2015, they published a report called ‘A head for hiring: the behavioural science of recruitment and selection’. The report explored ways to attract the best talent to an organisation and, importantly, the use of selection and assessment methods and the role bias plays in them. They offered several potential solutions to overcoming bias:

-  Anonymous CVs: by removing names and reference to institutions, the potential impact of bias is drastically reduced. Upon reviewing applications, you are faced with making a decision based on a candidate’s responsibilities and achievements, rather than their previous employer or University.

-  Interviews should be about data-collection, rather than decision-making: by reframing the interview in this way, and by committing to a defined set of questions, you can avoid hasty judgements. The interview should become part of the wider selection process, rather than being the selection process.

-  Tests must be relevant to the skills required for the job – verify this by assessing their test performance against their on-the-job performance.

-  When it comes to decision-making, use people who haven’t been involved in the previous stages and haven’t met the candidates, and stick to what the scores or results tell you.

-  Spread assessments and decision-making over several days, but keep the process and conditions the same.

-  Be careful when discussing unconscious bias – emphasise desired behaviour rather than the problem. By mentioning that unconscious bias is common and people should attempt to avoid it prior to a review of applications, it is possible to increase its effect. However, by saying that the majority of people “try to overcome stereotypical preconceptions” [a slight difference] it is possible to reverse it.

-  Evaluate your systems regularly.

By making these changes to the hiring process, the impact of unconscious bias can be greatly reduced and the accuracy of the process itself can be improved. The end-goal is to hire the best candidates possible for the role and organisation; by removing bias, we should be much more effective at doing so.

But does it actually work? This might seem like a modern “invention” but in 1952 the Boston Symphony Orchestra pioneered the first blind auditions: musicians played behind a screen and walked across carpeted floors (to prevent recognising women walking in heels). The practice was adopted by orchestras across the US in the subsequent decades. Researchers who studied the effects found that blind auditions increased the likelihood of women being hired by between 25 and 46%, and the increased likelihood meant more women applied.

Today, a software company called GapJumpers is working with companies, mainly across the US, to tackle this issue. They started by creating a series of challenges to mimic those faced on the job and presented the results, the candidate’s name and their photo to the prospective employer. They realised, however, that despite removing a candidate’s CV from the process, the hiring still tended to be biased in the favour of white men. They took the orchestra example, above, and applied it to their work and found it had a major impact, Of 1,400 auditions they’ve conducted for companies, they found that with conventional CV screening about 20% of applicants who were not “white, male, able-bodied people from elite schools” received an invitation to interview; with blind auditions this figure rose to 60%. And, the Harvard Business School found that when service companies used a similar approach, they hired individuals who stayed with the company longer, indicating a better fit.

When you make a hire, you want that person to last – at the very least, it’s a time-consuming process to go through so you want to get it right first time; you also want the best person for the role. To give you the best chance of doing so, blind “auditions” need to become the norm.

Written by our Researcher, James Quinlan

[1] ‘How unconscious bias holds us back’, Trang Chu in The Guardian, 1st May 2014,

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