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Unconscious bias revisited

How stress can make you biased

A few weeks ago I talked about unconscious bias – what it is and how to avoid it when recruiting.

In that article (see below) we saw how taking deliberate steps to be aware of your own unconscious bias could help you ensure you base hiring decisions on evidence rather than instinct.

The problem is that if you’re stressed, frustrated or just plain tired, those deliberate steps can go right out of the window.

Unconscious bias is when your brain judges a new person according to how similar they are to you – whether that’s in terms of appearance, age, gender, background, accent and so on.

When you meet someone who is not like you the brain may conclude they are a threat.

It’s a natural, instinctive reaction – but not very helpful when it comes to all sorts of interactions, including when you’re recruiting.

The way to overcome unconscious bias is to engage your rational, conscious thought processes so that you make considered assessments rather than knee-jerk ones.

But that sort of deliberate thinking is slow and takes effort. An unconscious, instinctual response is fast, automatic and takes no effort. When we’re tired, stressed or upset it can be much harder to slow our thinking down.

Our fallback position, when we’re up against it, is to base our judgment on instinct rather than sense.

Interviews can be stressful. And not just for the person being interviewed! And if you’ve conducted several interviews in a day you’ll know they can be really tiring too.

So what can you do to minimise the stress and fatigue in order to reduce the risk of making biased hiring decisions?

I’ve been working with a client to do exactly this. We’ve been looking at their assessment centres – where the stress and exhaustion can be turned up to 11!

Assessors often have to get through a large number of interviews during the course of the day with very little time in-between to score candidates and write up notes.

It is also common for assessors to gather at the end of the day to do a ‘wash-up’ to discuss the candidates.

We wanted to see whether, by making some small changes to how the assessment centre was run, we would see an improvement in the diversity of successful candidates.

Two simple tactics we used to avoid unconscious bias coming into play:

  1. MORE BREAKS: Given that there is a risk of bias if people feel under pressure to make decisions quickly, we looked at whether we could give assessors more time in-between sessions. So we reduced the number of interviews they had to conduct in the day and built in more time for reflection as well as a proper lunch-break away from their marking.
  2. WASH-UP NEXT DAY: While the thinking behind holding the wash-up at the end of the day is perfectly logical – the candidates are fresh in your mind and it means everything is wrapped up on the same day, we were concerned that having these discussions when our assessors were all exhausted and just wanted to get home might be counter-productive. So we moved the wash-up session to the next day.

And the results for my client?

The changes we made to how the centre was run, combined with the use of strengths and competency based assessment tools, led to the following:

“We used to hire older people and now we have a whole age range of candidates being hired from recently graduated to the recently retired…”

“…and they all used to be lawyers and solicitors who were successful at the assessment centre, but now we get all kinds of background and diverse work experience… we even had a young ex-police woman join recently, as well as a retired local council chief executive, both of whom have been great at the job since they joined.”

How does this apply to you?

Whether you run assessment centres or plan to conduct a number of interviews in one day, think about how the practical arrangements might impact on your (or your assessors’) stress and fatigue levels. Consider what changes you could make to how the day is organised to minimise this and help you (or your assessors) to slow your thinking down.

What do you think? What practical changes could you make to how you run interview sessions or assessment centres to reduce unconscious bias? Let me know how you get on.

One Comment

  1. realtekh says:

    nice……….thank you for your sharing

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