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How to avoid unconscious bias when recruiting

We all like to think of ourselves as non-judgmental

We all like to think of ourselves as non-judgmental, unbiased, open to new ideas and up for meeting new people.

Problem is, our brains aren’t.

We all want to be fair when we’re recruiting a new team member. We think we’re basing our assessment on the evidence of their skills and their experience.

Problem is, our brains aren’t.

And the way our brains actually respond to new people affects how we interact with them. Which can lead to poor decision-making. And poor decision-making when it comes to recruitment is bad for business.

But you can retrain your brain. Let me explain.

Our brains are wary of the unfamiliar

In evolutionary terms, the unfamiliar means a new threat to our survival. Encountering unfamiliar situations can trigger the release of hormones like adrenaline to help us flee from or battle with this new hazard.

However in today’s complicated world, our brains are constantly being bombarded with unfamiliar situations, information and people. The only way to avoid having to keep us in a permanent state of adrenaline-fuelled panic is for the brain to look for patterns.

The brain looks at what’s in front of us and asks, “do I need to worry about this?” It then tries to find a pattern between this new encounter and something it’s already familiar with. If it can find a link then it can relax – “I don’t need to worry about A because it’s the same as B.”

This applies to new experiences, new situations and new people

When you meet someone for the first time, your brain looks for patterns. It asks, “how much are they like me? They look a bit like me, they talk like I do – therefore I’m going to decide they’re not a threat. Therefore I trust them.”

When you meet someone who is not like you – they have a different skin colour, or are dressed very differently, or have a different accent – your brain is wary – “they’re not like me at all, this is all a bit unfamiliar.” It searches through your mental database of people you know to try and find a pattern with this new person. If it can’t find a match that suggests all is well, then it concludes that this person may be a threat. And that can affect how you interact with this person.

It’s called unconscious bias. And because these judgments are instinctive rather than considered, they can lead to bad decisions.

What does this mean for recruitment?

Unconscious bias could lead you to make a hiring decision based not on an individual’s skills and experience but on how like you they are.

For example, I’m aware that when I’m interviewing someone who’s in their early twenties, say, I’m biased against them. I doubt they have a lot of life experience, I instinctively feel they’re likely to be immature and not very sensible.

This could mean I might reject people who are perfectly capable of performing the job well, simply on the basis of my prejudice towards their age.

But knowing this about myself means I can take steps to counteract this bias. I make sure I take the time to evaluate the evidence of what the candidate has actually said in the interview and how they have performed in any tests I’ve run.

This means I can be confident that I am making a recruitment decision based on a considered appraisal of the facts rather than on my gut instinct.

Unconscious bias is natural

We all have it. We all have a bias towards people who are like us and against those who aren’t.

What’s important is that we recognise this and take steps to address it.

Here are some tactics to employ to counter your own unconscious bias:

  • Identify your personal biases (there are some useful tools to help you do this e.g. www.implicitly.co.uk)
  • Consider if you might be making biased decisions inadvertently
  • Give yourself the time to hear and think about what a candidate is saying
  • Take time to think carefully about your final decision
  • Use objective tests to measure performance
  • Seek the opinions of others – if you can, have someone else conduct the interview with you
  • If you use an interview panel, try and include as many different types of people on it as possible.

And of course, the more your brain encounters people who are not like you, the more familiar they will become. In this way you can train your brain to create new patterns.

Does this ring true for you? How might you apply this in your next recruitment activity? Let me know how you get on!

One Comment

  1. realtekh says:

    nice……….thank you for your sharing

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