raj-portrait_2013Unconscious bias is everywhere. That’s because it is an integral part of being a human being. It is why we feel comfortable with people we assume are similar to us and why it can often lead to organisations hiring or promoting the same sort of people and leaders creating a “mini-me” culture. Even the most freethinking, open-minded people are at its mercy – and it’s the single biggest block to UK organisations achieving increased diversity.

It has traditionally been thought that patterns of discriminatory behaviour in organisations are conscious. We assume that people who know better do the right thing, and those who don’t cause bias. In reality, the situation is far more complex than this.

Last year, psychologists Peter Jones and Tinu Cornish published research that suggested that around a quarter of employees unintentionally tend to recruit people who are similar to themselves or others in their workplace. Their study interviewed candidates who felt that they had been victims of stereotyping when being interviewed for a new position and found that this was most acutely felt by part time workers, people with disabilities and those who held strong religious faith.

Another 2012 study, this time by Yale University, asked more than 100 scientists to review identical CVs  for a laboratory manager position that had been randomly assigned male or female names.  The researchers found that the “male” candidates were judged to be more competent and deserving of a higher salary than women and that the scientists were more likely to hire a male candidate. What’s more, the women who took part in the study were just as likely as the men to prefer a male candidate.

So while we might be working hard to remove conscious bias through legislation and by proactively educating people to help them understand and avoid discrimination, unconscious bias is still present behind the scenes, subversively undermining these efforts. In many ways, because it’s harder to identify, unconscious bias is the modern challenge – because even the most diversity-aware individuals and organisations are prey to it.

This goes a long way towards explaining why, for example, when we’ve made significant progress in reducing conscious discrimination, the unemployment gap between ethnic minorities and the wider population has been somewhere in the region of 15% for the past 30 years.

But how does this unconscious bias manifest itself in practice?  Well, lets start with recruitment consultants. As diversity gatekeepers, they of all people ought to have a genuine commitment to helping their clients improve diversity.  Some of the better agencies (although not that many, truth be told) provide worthwhile diversity training and guidelines so that their consultants are positioned to avoid wilful discrimination. But these recruiters still fall prey to one of the simplest forms of unconscious bias – a negative assessment of non-standard CVs and career paths.

It’s all too easy to discount a CV that isn’t set out in a normal way, or describes a career path that doesn’t adhere to the normal move up through the corporate wheel. Unfortunately, the standard CV/career path is set at the norm for the majority – good school, good university, good corporate experience (meaning someone who is easy to place with clients).

CVs from minority candidates often don’t look like that, because minorities don’t so often tend to have trodden such a conventional path. So the recruiter typically excludes the minority applications, not really deliberately, but in an unconscious way where the recruiter actually feels that they are doing the best by the client. They’re used to assessing candidates against the “normal” framework of what looks good, and they churn the handle and come up with “the usual suspects”.

If minority candidates do happen make it through the process and are presented to the client, the same unconscious bias will be re-applied by the next group of people who review the CVs. And unconscious bias will also play a part in the way the recruitment consultant actually briefs the different candidates for the role prior to meeting the clients, if they get through the sift. For example, a very good-looking candidate will likely receive a different briefing to a less attractive candidate: maybe not a better briefing – but a different one. The same applies to minority candidates. That’s unconscious bias, and it has an impact on the process.

Replace the word “minority candidate“ with “female candidate” and you quickly see why the numbers of men tend to outnumber women at each level up the management chain –  even more so when you bear in mind the findings of the Yale researchers.  With the majority of leadership positions still held by men, the mini-me syndrome and the belief that ‘things have worked well up until now, so why change?’ are huge barriers to increasing the number of women in senior roles.

So while most organisations will look to tackle conscious bias, unconscious bias will continue to thwart the drive toward diverse representation for all but the most progressive organisations. Of course, the smartest companies are those that can address both forms of bias to realise the “power of collective difference”:  the competitive advantage of achieving diversity.

 About the author
Raj Tulsiani
Chief Executive Officer, Green Park Interim & Executive Resourcing