Does Unconscious Bias Damage Your Hiring?

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HammerIn light of the continued challenges organizations face in their talent retention efforts, I was drawn to a recent study from Korn Ferry. The study found that an overwhelming 84 percent of respondents believed that a lack of attention to diversity and inclusion is a key driver of employee turnover.

We have always known that lack of diversity is a problem, but the link between diversity and staff engagement and retention has not always been made clear. This is one of the first studies to show that mastering diversity and inclusion is a key way to maximize staff retention and compete effectively in the war for talent.

Of course, the big question when tackling such a complex problem like diversity is, “Where do I even start?” There are many fronts upon which this issue can be addressed. One less talked about — but very useful — diversity enhancement strategy is actively reducing unconscious bias in the hiring process. It’s not surprising that we don’t talk about unconscious bias very much, because it’s so elusive and intangible that we can’t see it or see other people doing it. We may even be in denial that unconscious bias exists.

What is unconscious bias? Research tells us that the mind can be exposed to up to 11,000,000 pieces of information at any time, yet we can only consciously process around 40 pieces of this information. And so, the unconscious brain fills in the gaps by making assumptions, judgments, and assessments based on past experiences, our personal backgrounds, and our cultural environments. This is unconscious bias.

Unconscious bias is thought to be responsible for many of the diversity issues that we see in modern employment. In fact, 42 percent of the Korn Ferry study respondents believed that there was an element of unconscious bias in their workforce when it comes to diverse backgrounds such as religion, race, gender, or sexual orientation.

Several studies support the idea that unconscious bias may negatively impact diversity recruiting effortd, the most notable of which is one from Yale. The Yale study asked 127 scientists to assess job applications of identically qualified male and female candidates and found that the faculty members, comprising both men and women, consistently scored male candidates higher on several criteria and were more likely to hire the male candidates.

Another study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that job advertisements for male-dominated occupations used traditionally “masculine” words like “competitive,” “leader,” and “dominant.” The study found that readers of these masculine job descriptions perceived that there were more men than women in these occupations, and the job descriptions were less appealing to women. This shows us that something as imperceptible as unconsciously masculine wording of job applications could be driving gender inequality within organizations.

These two studies just scratch the surface of the types of unconscious bias and stereotyping that could be hindering the hiring process and contributing to inequality in hiring and the wider workplace.

Are we held hostage by our unconscious minds? Can we really do anything about this? The good news is that, no, we are not hostages, and yes, we can do something about unconscious bias.

What we need to do is bring our unconscious assumptions into our conscious minds. Once we know what our unconscious biases are, we can go about addressing any unwanted ones that may be harming our diversity initiatives.

You don’t need to see a hypnotist to excavate the contents of your unconscious mind. Rather, you can take the implicit bias test prepared by Harvard University. You could also encourage your hiring team and hiring managers to take the test as part of a diversity training program. The test measures your unconscious biases and the report at the end helps to make the unconscious conscious by telling you about your unconscious biases. Once you know about any unconscious biases that could be harming diversity in your hiring process, the good news is that you can take steps to reduce said bias.

This involves reprogramming your subconscious by seeking out experiences that undo the patterns that created the undesired preferences. This could mean watching TV shows that promote positive stereotypes of women or minorities, or reading materials that explicitly counteract your biases, or interacting more with people who challenge the stereotypes you carry. It could also mean trying to be more alert to the existence of the stereotypes you have and not allowing them to influence your hiring decisions.

It is important to be optimistic about removing unwanted unconscious biases. Research shows that biases are malleable and can be both managed and changed. I realize that this is a very sensitive subject, and I recommend you read all the advice documents and the FAQ before taking the Harvard test.

As you can see, unconscious bias is prevalent within the hiring process, and a good way to reduce your biases is to develop awareness of any unwanted unconscious biases you or the members of your hiring team may carry. Once you’ve identified these biases, you can deploy counteractive strategies to reduce the unwanted unconscious biases and stereotypes you find in yourself.

By Kazim Ladimeji