IB Career Column: The Implicit Truth of Implicit Bias

In a new recruitment column for InBUSINESS, Career Doctor Susan Kealy looks at how we can address the issue of subconscious bias in recruitment.

Discrimination is wrong. We all know that. Fortunately, as decent and educated professionals living in the West, we practice fairness and equality in all of our dealings.

If only.

Implicit bias refers to the unconscious stereotypes that all of us hold. Implicit biases don’t care about your sense of fairness, your morality, your good intentions or your corporate values. They have been influencing us since childhood through direct and indirect messaging from the media, our parents, our peer groups and our societies and it is likely that in one way or another you are either ageist, racist, sexist or some other kind of ‘ist’. Yes, you. Don’t believe me? See for yourself.

The first step in effectively dealing with bias in our society and our workplaces is to acknowledge that we have some. The second is to give ourselves a break about it. Having bias does not make us bad people. Biases are part of our evolutionary history because stereotyping has had adaptive advantages for survival.

What matters now is what we do to manage our biases.

How Biased Are We?

In business, 2017 research showed that women are less likely to get venture capital funding than men – and in fact, are judged and diminished for possessing the same traits that are lauded in men. In recruitment, a recent PNAS study revealed that when the exact same resume was shown to a range of assessors, it was judged as far less favourable when the name at the top was switched from male to female.

Other peer reviewed research has consistently shown that race is a discriminating factor when it comes to judgements around job suitability, while in Ireland, those with disabilities are twice as likely to experience prejudicial recruitment.

Why Does It Matter?

The social and ethical implications of bias and the repercussions of an unjust society should be obvious to us all, but what about the economic fallout?

Well, for example, a 2015 McKinsey & Company study found a significant connection between company diversity and financial performance. It revealed that companies in the top quartile for gender and racial diversity were more likely to have financial returns of between 15 per cent and 35 per cent above their national mean.

Again and again, diversity is found to be great for business because inclusive environments foster more creativity, problem-solving, social responsibility and collaboration while providing access to a larger talent pool.

What Can We Do About Bias?

Harvard researchers note that there is not yet any compelling evidence to suggest that implicit bias can be reduced, let alone eliminated, despite our best efforts. The best way to deal with the problem in recruitment is to “go blind”, they say – at least while screening. Where possible, use a screening tool that strips names and pictures from resumes before analysis, and anonymise the scoring of other pre-hire tests, by using neutral candidate IDs.

Forget about trying not to judge a book by its cover – we’re humans, and by our nature, we will. Instead, rip the cover off!

Susan Kealy is a work and organisational psychologist, specialising in career psychology and a certified coach and trainer. She is also the founder of the graduate recruitment platform Budding, which helps prevent bias in selection through its innovative design. For more information on Budding, visit www.budding.ie.