Is Your Brain Leading You to Make Biased Hiring Decisions?

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.

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.

Want to Boost Your Productivity at Work?  Start Prioritising Prioritising.

Want to Boost Your Productivity at Work? Start Prioritising Prioritising.

Tell me if this scenario sounds familiar…

You get into work early, planning to get through a TON of work and have an amazingly productive day, so that you can head home (at a reasonable time) with an immense sense of satisfaction about how much you’ve achieved.

You arrive at your office.

And then you open your emails.

And the next thing you know, it’s mid-morning and you are still responding to emails, having completed nothing else since you arrived at 7:30am.

Sound familiar?  Yep, it happens to everyone.  Maybe for you personally it’s phone calls or meetings instead of emails, but the general pattern is the same – it isn’t until lunchtime or so that you actually have the ‘head space’ to start thinking about what else you need to get done.  And by then you’re tired or hungry, or feeling anxious about the fact that half of the day is already gone.

So here’s the good news.

One simple adjustment to your everyday routine can change ALL of this.

All you need to do is implement ONE of the key actions recommended by David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work and director of the NeuroLeadership Institute.

Start prioritising prioritising

That’s it.  Simple, huh?  If you want to become more productive at work, then from now on start each and every working day by prioritising prioritising.

What exactly do I mean by that?  Well, upon starting work for the day, before you do anything else at all – spend some time identifying and mapping out your key priorities for the day.

Here’s why.  As David Rock explains in Your Brain at Work, prioritising is actually one of the most mentally taxing activities that your brain can perform.  In fact, he refers to prioritising as the “triathlon of mental tasks”.

The majority of difficult and complex thinking tasks are performed by a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex – a small area in the front of the brain just behind your forehead. What most people don’t realise is that the capacity of the prefrontal cortex is significantly limited, meaning that it essentially runs out of ‘fuel’ very quickly.

And put simply, using this ‘fuel’ to perform tasks that require a lot of attention (but aren’t all that complex or difficult) is a waste.  Especially as ‘refuelling’ isn’t that easy – over the course of the day this part of your brain only becomes more and more tired, and less effective.  For most people, the prefrontal cortex functions most effectively in the morning, after waking from sleep (and perhaps downing a coffee or two!).

So the upshot is this – ideally, you should aim to use your brain ‘fuel’ wisely by starting your day with the hardest, most mentally challenging and complicated tasks.  One of which is prioritising.

And if you think about it, spending 10 or 20 minutes identifying your key priorities will also help to ensure that you spend the rest of the day productively, by focusing on what’s important.  So as well as being supported by neuroscientific research, this approach just makes good sense, right?


The common mistake that most people make

Making this shift might require a change in habit – especially if like most people, you start your day by knocking off the quickest, easiest items on your ‘to-do’ list – which in many cases involves responding to emails.

To make this shift, you will definitely need to avoid this temptation.

That is, DO NOT start your day by checking your emails, reading the news, browsing your favourite blog, or chatting with colleagues about what happened in yesterday’s staff meeting.  Basically, don’t start your day by performing ANY task that is fairly ‘automatic’ in nature and doesn’t require a whole lot of brain power.

Instead, make the most of that optimum brain power and work out what really needs to go on today’s “to do” list.

And after that, use up all of your remaining brain ‘fuel’ to get started on the most mentally challenging task you’ve identified as important on today’s priority list.

If you want to learn more about the science supporting this advice, read David Rock’s Your Brain at Work.