Unconscious bias

Diversity and inclusion is at the forefront of conversation within the business world at the moment, and how it can be approached and ultimately improved in the workplace so that individuals from more walks of life including gender, race, ethnicity, socio-background, physical abilities and more are represented at all levels.

CIPD explains that whilst UK legislation sets minimum standards, an effective diversity and inclusion strategy goes beyond legal compliance and seeks to add value to an organisation, contributing to employee well-being and engagement. One barrier that can prevent an effective diversity and inclusion strategy is unconscious bias.

Unconscious bias, simply put, is a bias we make that is something that we are unaware of, triggered by our brain making quick judgements regarding an individual or situation. It is influenced by our cultural environment, background and personal experiences. So, before a potential candidate even walks through the door, our brain could already subconsciously be making unfair assumptions about the individual which could negatively affect the outcome of their interview before they even open their mouth!

A few months ago I read Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Blink’ which had an interesting chapter on orchestra auditions in Europe and how they have had a face lift over the past couple of decades. Gladwell explained how first impressions of musicians taking part in these auditions 20 years ago were a lot of the time corrupted due to the way they looked, before they had an opportunity to play a note. This compromised any credibility this musician would have during their audition and ensure that a lot of the time the conductor had made his (I say his as there were no female conductors 20 years ago) mind up before the performance. Some people looked a lot better than what they played and others looked worse but played superbly.

To prevent further prejudice, screens were put in place for all auditions meaning the musician could not be seen whilst they played, so the conductor could only judge the performance based on the sound, rather than how someone presents themselves or holds the instrument.

Comparisons can be made to the recruitment world and in particular how hiring managers may subconsciously make negative assumptions about candidates before and during the recruitment process. Prior to meeting a potential candidate, negative connotations could easily be made based on a candidate’s name, gender or even where they live, having a detrimental impact on their chances unbeknown to the candidate due to these subconscious thoughts.

Simple things during the interview process, such as how a candidate presents themselves and dresses, is something I appreciate does make a genuine impression, however to what extent could that negatively influence a hiring managers decision and to what detriment could that be depending on how good the candidate actually is, despite a less impressive appearance?

Working in tech we hear all the time from developers and engineers about how important casual clothing and being comfortable in their work attire is, so should this be any different during an interview? Their interviews more often than not consist of a technical tests and face-to-face to interviews which can last a couple of hours, meaning comfort is probably a high priority for them.

I would hope we are now becoming accustomed to these things and making more conscious efforts to block out this bias whether we are aware of it or not.