non-conscious bias

Is Your Brain Leading You to Make Biased Hiring Decisions?

A few weeks ago I spent an interesting couple of days with a group of neuroscientists, psychologists, and HR professionals talking about the human brain. We were all becoming accredited in the My Brain Solutions Leadership Assessment (MBSLA) – a scientifically validated tool that measures and develops 17 different brain capacities involved in decision making, information processing, and a range of other workplace behaviours.

During the accreditation course we talked a lot about ‘non-conscious’ brain activities, and in particular, non-conscious bias.

You see, from a brain-based perspective we are all influenced to some degree by bias – our brains are simply ‘wired’ that way. “It’s a feature of evolution”, says Mahzarin Banaji in this New York Times article, a Harvard psychology professor who co-develops tests of unconscious bias.

From a recruitment and selection perspective non-conscious biases can have a significant impact on hiring and employment decisions. While many hiring managers and recruiters are keenly attuned to those personal attitudes and beliefs that they know could affect their hiring decisions, a number of non-conscious biases could also be impacting their choices.

That’s the problem with non-conscious biases – they are non-conscious­. The effects occur below the level of your conscious awareness.

So what ARE some of these biases?

Incredibly, Wikipedia provides a list of over 150 decision-making, belief, behaviour, memory, and social biases. Here we will focus on just 3 of the most common biases that I’ve seen ‘come into play’ during the recruitment process.

Checklist box

1. Confirmation Bias – this refers to our tendency to look for information that confirms our existing beliefs and ideas, and then place greater weight on this information. From a brain-based perspective, this provides an opportunity to take a ‘mental shortcut’ by focusing on information we are already familiar with.

Within a recruitment context, this can translate to decision makers paying more attention to information that confirms their current thinking about a candidate’s potential suitability for a role.

For example, a hiring manager may have developed the opinion that a particular candidate is probably quite ‘smart’ given the impressive list of qualifications on their resume. Confirmation bias suggests that during an interview, this hiring manager will pay more attention to information that supports this preexisting notion.

2. In-group Bias – also referred to as “in-group favouritism”, this refers to our tendency to favour people who we perceive to be members of our own ‘groups’. We tend to categorise people into groups based on obvious factors such as race, gender, age, profession, and socio-economic status – as well as more trivial factors such as the colour of their hair (or if you live in Melbourne, the football team you barrack for!).

As mentioned, this process typically occurs below the level of consciousness, as our brains are wired to respond based on instantaneous “us versus them” judgements. We certainly don’t intend to favour or discriminate against people in this way. A lot of interesting research on what happens in the brain while making these unconscious judgements has been conducted in recent years – here’s an example (if you want more, just search for “neuroscience” and “bias”).

3. Stereotyping – most people are aware of this bias, which refers to our tendency to expect individuals to have certain characteristics without having actual information about that individual. Some of the most common stereotypes encountered are those that relate to age, gender, educational level, and cultural background.

Unfortunately I’ve seen and heard numerous examples of stereotyping over the years, most often while providing clients with feedback on psychometric assessment results.  Examples include:

  • Comments about a candidate’s likely ability to communicate in English based on only their surname;
  • Assumptions that a woman returning to work after maternity leave will only want to work part-time;
  • On numerous occasions, an assumption that having a specific qualification or degree makes a candidate ‘smart’.

Many consider Harvard’s Implicit Association Test (IAT) to be the most widely accepted way to quantify non-conscious biases.

Reducing cognitive biases

So what can be done to reduce these biases?  How can leaders, managers, and recruiters introduce a greater level of objectivity and rigour into the recruitment and selection process?

As a starting point, it’s important to spend time getting absolutely clear on what success ‘looks like’ in a role before embarking on the recruitment process. What are the critical capabilities, aptitudes, experience, knowledge, motivations, and personal attributes required for an incumbent to successfully deliver outcomes in the role? And how will you prioritise these – which ones fit into the ‘essential’ versus ‘desirable’ categories?

Importantly, don’t do this alone – make sure that all relevant stakeholders reach consensus on the final ‘Success Profile’.

  In itself this process can help to reduce bias, especially if those involved challenge each other to remain objective, and to repeatedly refer back to this criteria when making decisions about candidates.

Secondly, integrate some objective and unbiased assessment methods into the recruitment process, such as psychometric assessment.

Indeed, a large part of my role in providing assessment services to clients is to act as an independent and objective third party. After all, I have no vested interest in anything other than the ‘right’ candidate getting the job. Much to the surprise of many clients, I actually avoid other information about a candidate (e.g. their resume or LinkedIn profile) in the early stages of the assessment process, so that I can maintain greater levels of objectivity.

In my opinion, the role of an assessment provider is also to challenge a hiring manager’s thinking when they see bias occurring, with this forming another strategy for tackling unconscious bias. Be sure to take advantage of this by inviting constructive feedback on your decisions.

And of course, do what you can to better understand your own unconscious biases. To learn more about some of the potential biases that could be impacting your hiring decisions, it’s worth visiting and taking some tests – an experience which most people I know (including me!) have found very enlightening.