Career Management

Our unconscious bias can override our ability to make rational decisions. When it comes to business, bias-based decisions and behaviour can limit creativity and opportunity, as well as lead to discrimination – all of which can have a significant impact on performance, productivity and the bottom line of a business.

First impressions:

One of the major contributing factors to bias decision-making is the first impressions formed by people within the first few minutes of meeting them a factor which all of us are susceptible to; rapid categorisation. These thought patterns, assumptions and interpretations – or biases have built up over time and help us to process information quickly and efficiently. From a survival standpoint, bias is a positive and necessary trait. We as humans tend to cast people as heroes or villains through visual or social identity, gender and ethnicity. It can be something as simple as what someone wears that can have a powerful impact on what people think about them.

Once we have categorised ourselves as part of a group and have identified with  a group we then tend to compare that group with other groups. If our self-esteem is to be maintained our group needs to compare favourably with other groups. This is critical to understanding bias, because once two groups identify themselves as rivals they are forced to compete in order for the members to maintain their self-esteem. Competition and hostility between groups is thus not only a matter of competing for resources like jobs but also the result of competing identities.

So you are on the packed Northern Line and the person next to you chooses to eat the smelliest sandwich? They have no regard for others, no self awareness, and slightly overweight; do they really need that sandwich?

We all do it – we judge:

We aren’t trying to be cruel and we would of course be mortified if another person could hear what we are thinking, but that’s not the point – the point is that these judgements happen without us even thinking and they affect how we behave and how we arrive at decisions.

Move this to a recruitment context I am sure we can all remember an occasion when a candidate walked through the door and we began to make judgements whether it was what they were wearing or what weight or what height they were from the second they walked in they did not have the same chance as the others and their CV suddenly became irrelevant. Can you remember doing that?

Statistics speak for themselves; approximately half of HR professionals are biased towards overweight women, whereas only 4% held a bias against slim women (People Management, 2012). On top of this 78% of employers have discriminated against candidates based on their accents. (Personnel Today), It would be no surprise that an increasing number of people make a conscious effort to hide their accents in job interviews.



As recruiters we are fairly self aware around issues such as racial bias and we certainly need to do more but the issue is there is less of a focus on broader biases and they are less obvious in nature. We need to develop our consciousness in terms of how our upbringing, the media and our friends can have an impact on the decisions we make.

Combating bias:

So how do we go about addressing our innate social biases well we could introduce a “blind date” style interview process where you interview without seeing the person that would work wouldn’t it?

Or maybe we could develop software that runs or automates the interview process without the need for human interaction. I am aware that some organisations have had real outcomes by removing all demographic information from CVs and job applications submitted for short listing.

The truth is in some companies the right qualification from the right education establishment is enough to get you that interview slot why because they are likely to be ‘pro-active, intelligent, switched on, cultured, hard-working, and analytical’ so there seems to be no quick fix, but then culture change is never a quick fix.

To really affect a change you need to be open to admitting you think like this and that sometimes I make assumptions which have no basis in facts. However, you shouldn’t feel guilty for this and instead accept responsibility for monitoring your own behaviours and commit consciously to being fair and respectful to everyone you come into contact with.

Practice empathy. Imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes and always ask: “Would I think this scenario is fair?” Be an accessible, open communicator. If people feel they can talk to you about sensitive issues, you’ll prevent bias situations from escalating.

Author: Andrew Hyland. Andrew joined Macmillan Cancer Support in 2011 to develop and implement a new recruitment model. Since joining he has brought the service in house, developed a new team, implemented a new system and developed Macmillan’s career brand in a time of significant growth for the business. You can follow on Twitter @MacRecruitTeam

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