Outsmart Yourself - Overcoming Implicit Bias

Diversity is at the top of the agenda for most recruiters. Beyond the legal obligation of equal treatment and the social justice case, there is plenty of evidence to show that businesses with a diverse workforce are more effective, more innovative and ultimately more profitable.

However, organisations reflect the inequality embedded in our social structures and will not become truly inclusive overnight. Facing up to the lack of diversity requires challenging societal, organisational and individual biases, fundamentally questioning how we function as individuals.

Implicit bias – a form of social cognition (formed through cultural influences, societal stereotypes and personal experiences) that affects our decisions and actions without us being aware of them takes a lot of the blame for the lack of diversity.

Whilst admittedly inequality has in part been engineered in a structured and conscious way, having a bias is not the same as being racists, sexist or having any other “ism”. We are all biased because our everyday decisions are driven by associative mechanisms that allow us to make sense of the world. Take the similar - to - me effect for example – a tendency to favour people similar to yourself in appearance, beliefs or attitudes. We find it easier to relate to people who are “like us” and will inevitably find it easier to imagine them being the “right cultural fit” to the organisation we work for.

It is not a moral failing. The same mechanisms that allow us to tell a friend from a stranger or decide how we feel about pineapple on pizza (in both cases our subconscious will quickly retrieve the appropriate associations to “inform” us), also influence our perceptions and ultimately decisions when it comes to hiring.

Whilst one cannot completely eliminate the existence of bias, there are some simple things organisations can do to minimise their effect in the recruitment process:

1) Admittance is the first step to recovery. Ensure that people involved in the recruitment process are aware of and comfortable with discussing their biases. You may start by asking: what does a good candidate look like? Is it possible that some of the behaviours, skills and attitudes we perceive to be important are linked to a biased association?

2) Consciousness. There may already be a culture of openly discussing biases, your assessors may be very experienced, but the bias will still there. D. Kahneman brilliantly exemplified this in his Nobel Prize-winning “Thinking Fast and Slow”, using the optical Muller -Lyer Illusion. Two arrows with fins facing inwards and outwards are of the same length. The line with fins facing outwards looks longer. If you have seen the illusion before, when asked, you will say that the lines are of the same length, but you still can’t help but see one of the lines to be longer than the other. Similarly, biases have to be consciously “fought” with even when we are aware of their existence. 

3) Make it easy to assess. Our brains are lazy – the more difficult the decision-making process, the more likely we are to revert to a “default” mode – a path of least resistance. The brain will process information that is easiest to access and retrieve at the given point in time. Multiple candidates, a high number of skills or behaviours to be assessed at the same time, complicated questions and lengthy forms will all create a cognitive strain on the assessors and make them more susceptible to making a biased decision.

4) Constrain intuition. It is very appealing to follow our intuition when it comes to hiring the right people for the business. Not to say that it carries no weight whatsoever, but intuition is nothing more than a collection of knowledge and past experience that can be easily retrieved from memory, even when we are not consciously aware of what those memories are. Kirsten Prestner in her TED talk has offered a surprisingly easy tool that can be used as a self-check here: “Flip it to test it”. Mentally flip the characteristic to complete opposite. For example, you feel very positive about a candidate you interviewed. They were well presented and well spoken. Now imagine the same candidate wasn’t wearing a suit and had an accent that was at times difficult to understand. Do you still feel just as positive about them? If the flipped result feels weird, you may have uncovered a bias.

5) Get a nice lunch. This is my personal favourite. Research has proven that being hungry affects one’s judgement. The metabolic state, energy reserves and nutrient levels impact our ability to make sound judgements, biases can arise from biological factors, not only social conditioning. Taking substantial rest breaks and ensuring assessors have time to recharge is just as important as having the right training in place.

The above points are by no means an extensive list, but a good place to start with minimal investment necessary. Perhaps it can get us closer to having more women CEOs than men named John.


https://www.illusionsindex.org/ir/mueller-lyer https://www.bcg.com/en-gb/publications/2018/how-diverse-leadership-teams-boost-innovation.aspx https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/why-diversity-matters https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3674453/ https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/04/24/upshot/women-and-men-named-john.html https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bq_xYSOZrgU