Unconscious bias: are we pre-programmed to select people that are like us?

We may all think that we’re progressive, modern professionals, but the fact is that there is no escaping our unconscious biases.

Whether a bias is related to gender, sexuality, race, age or multiple other factors, workplace decisions are rarely made in the vacuum of infallible objectivity.

How do biases work and do we all have them?

“We all have biases, it’s part of human nature, it’s how the human brain is constructed. And the way that bias works is really through a process of associations,” said Dan Robertson, diversity and inclusion director at the Employers Network for Equality and Inclusion, a non-profit organisation.

“The major one is what is called affinity bias – human beings are neurologically designed to gravitate towards people who are like them,” he said.

This inevitably has an impact on the workplace, even during the initial recruitment process, argued Robertson.

The likeability factor

“Imagine you’ve got a CV in front of you. What a hiring manager would do is look at skills, competences, experience. But that’s what the conscious brain is doing,” he said.

“The unconscious brain is looking at the CV and scanning for indicators that suggest likeability. One is if they went to the same university, or even names. There’s lot of research that you’re more likely to select a name that is similar to yours, which is really arbitrary,” Robertson explained.

“We’d all like to think that we are fair and objective in our decision-making processes. That we have frameworks around us so that when we do recruit we’ve got scoring frameworks. They basically don’t work,” he said.

“All of the data says that human beings are designed, pre-programmed, to select people that are like us.”

Invisible advantages

In another striking example, American writer and editor, Martin Schneider, recently wrote about an experiment he conducted with his colleague, Nicole Hallberg, when they swapped email signatures.

Schneider said his advice and technique did not change but when he signed off as Hallberg, “everything I asked or suggested was questioned.”

“Clients I could do in my sleep were condescending. One asked if I was single,” he said, describing the experience as “hell.”

Hallberg on the other hand “had the most productive week of her career.”

Blind recruitment

Blind decision-making is now an established technique used by several big companies during recruitment processes to combat bias, said Robertson.

The method involves removing references to a particular university or even family names from CVs to allow recruiters to focus solely on the skills presented to them.

For Sandra Kerr OBE, race equality director at Business in the Community, a business group committed to making a positive social impact, the first step to overcoming unconscious bias is for employers to take a proactive stand against it and get their messaging right.

If managers were not fully aware of their inner biases, it could affect some employees’ career progress, Kerr argued.

“There’s a certain group that get the opportunities to progress, get the opportunities for the better job roles,” she said.

Top tip: 

  • One of the best things that employers can do is to ensure that those who are involved in recruitment, in promotion processes actually go through the unconscious bias training awareness first.

Unconscious bias training 

Some companies worried about bias thwarting a diverse workforce that they are hiring professionals like Stephanie Morgan, director of learning solutions at communications group Bray Leino, who offer unconscious bias training.

“I think people are aware of it, but they are not always clear about how to tackle it,” she said.

She said one recent client had asked for help in identifying why their talent process was not producing enough diversity to reflect their customers and the demographics of their staff.

“When they looked at the process, what they found is that managers are championing their high performers. Totally acceptable on the face of it,” she said.

“But what we realised was that at that point their bias had already been applied” she said.  

Summary 

We all have biases, it’s how the human brain is constructed. Tackling the problem of unconscious bias requires sensitivity, to help people understand the problem without becoming defensive.

Questioning bias is a good way to tackle it, naming it is another, being able to spot it is important because quite often it’s not tangible in the moment. 

People need to be role models. In the accountancy industry are there role models showing that they are not male, pale and stale? Are there role models proving it is a diverse industry and that all people are welcome?

For more on diversity and inclusion in the workplace:

Nicola Smith has spent a decade reporting for The Sunday Times on both the European Union and South Asia.

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