Unconscious Bias: What it Is and How to Manage it

Unconscious Bias is in all of us - and it’s an incredibly important thing to be aware of. 

What is unconscious bias? Well, it comes in many, many forms. But generally speaking, unconscious bias is the prejudices we hold about other people without necessarily being aware of them. It occurs when we think quickly, make snap decisions, and allow it to go unchecked in our day to day life. What’s more, we likely don’t even realize it is happening. 

Photo: Taya Photography

Safe to say, there are many HR processes where unconscious bias plays a huge risk. Whether you’re deciding who to offer a position to, deciding who to promote, or even deciding who to give a new opportunity to. 

Here are some common ones in the Recruiting Process: 

Affinity Bias: With affinity bias, you’re drawn to people who think, act, or even look like you. It is also called a ‘similar-to-me’ bias. It means you might select the person who is most similar to you, even if they aren’t necessarily the right person for the job. 

The Contrast Effect: This occurs when we go through the recruiting process comparing all candidates to who we consider our ‘top candidate’. This one is so engrained that you might not even realize there’s an issue with this approach! In reality, we get far more objective assessments of a candidate's ability by comparing them to the actual skillset we are looking for, rather than pitting them against each other. 

Horns/Halo Effect: When we look at a candidate’s resume, we may allow a particular detail that we like or dislike about it cloud our judgement for the candidate's actual skillset. For example, if a candidate lists that they worked in Customer Service at a company that you had a very negative experience with, you may make a snap decision that the candidate would provide terrible customer service, despite the candidate listing other customer service awards they had won or companies they had worked with. 

And these are only some of the ways unconscious bias can play out! Ageism, sexism, and racism are also at risk of showing up unconsciously through the recruitment process. 

What's the risk with keeping our unconscious bias unchecked? 

The first issue with this is of course that marginalized groups are typically the ones that are overlooked as a result of unconscious bias. And while it's heartening to see so many organizations investing in this space, we have such a long way to go before we reach true equality. 

Further, without checking unconscious bias, business leaders end up with an entire team that looks, thinks, and acts the same. 

Study after study shows that a diverse team performs better and achieves greater results. If everyone looks, thinks, and acts the same, things are accomplished with no challenges or new ideas. By having a diverse set of people in a team, you’re more likely to get new ideas, new ways of doing things, and richer dialogue to achieve better results. 

Photo: https://www.instagram.com/clay.banks/

Photo: Clay Banks

So how can we manage it? 

  1. Be very clear on the skillset that you need for the role, and compare all candidates to how they stack up against the skillset, rather than against each other 
  2. If you felt especially drawn to candidate personally, write out the ways in which they seemed similar to you. 
  3. Think through how a candidate would go beyond “fitting” in with your culture, and how they may “add” to it (see our post from last week!) 
  4. Don’t allow resumes to speak for themselves and make snap decisions on a person’s work ethic based on their tenures or education levels. Use resumes as a guide to hear the full story from the candidate. 
  5. Have a concrete set of questions you ask every candidate, and try not to deviate. If you spend time getting to know one candidate on a personal level, and not another, the first candidate will likely have felt a lot more comfortable during the interview. This means they may seem like a better candidate, simply because you had extra time to chat with them.

Have you been working on any unconscious biases you hold? We'd love to discuss! 

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