The danger of unconscious bias in HR decisions and how to overcome it

Unconscious bias in the workplace can result in the same negative consequences as conscious bias and discrimination

The danger of unconscious bias in HR decisions and how to overcome it
by Rolf Howard, Managing Partner, Owen Hodge Lawyers

Discrimination is pervasive within our society and is therefore highly prevalent within the workplace, affecting a number of business decisions. This discrimination can be based on skin colour, gender, age, height, weight, religion, disability status or even where an individual was educated.

In the workplace, this can take the form of social stereotyping, resulting in biases that affect decisions such as recruitment, hiring, promotion, job advancement opportunities, retention and evaluations. 

Recently, there has been a move to use more finite methods to challenge individuals’ unconscious biases, such as the implicit association test, as unconscious biases have been acknowledged as being more detrimental to businesses than conscious bias.

Unconscious biases are those that occur automatically, triggered by our brain making quick judgments of people and situations based on previously determined judgments or socially accepted norms while disregarding any level of rationality or good judgment.

Risks of unconscious bias
Unconscious bias in the workplace can result in the same negative consequences as conscious bias and discrimination. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, if unconscious bias is rampant in a workplace, it can result in discriminatory treatment or practices, negative business culture and a lack of workforce diversity.

Driving diversity in the workplace should be an important focus for management and HR departments for both business development and legal reasons. Businesses with a highly diverse workforce have been proven to work more effectively and perform better than competitors that are lacking diversity. Having employees with a range of different ethnic backgrounds, differing experiences and alternative styles will drive innovation and allow for a large variety of opinions and perspectives to be considered.

From a legal perspective however, employers need to ensure that all business practices comply with the fair work ombudsman guidelines around discrimination. The ombudsman states that discrimination occurs when an employer takes adverse action against a person who is an employee or prospective employee based on unrelated characteristics, opening them up to litigation.

Types of unconscious bias
Unconscious discrimination can be explained through many different types of cognitive behaviours. Extensive research in the fields of social psychology and behavioural economics over time has revealed some of the following cognitive biases that are apparent in the workplace;

“Beer test” –? Affinity Bias/ingroup bias
Being one of the most common influences on recruitment decisions, the beer test refers to evaluating candidates on the basis of whether you would like to get a beer with them rather than looking at their work related credentials. This comes from humans’ innate tendency to like people who are similar to themselves, or those who seem to form part of the ‘in group’

Availability Heuristic
Coming from the human tendency to assess situations based on the most recent events, availability heuristic bias refers to giving more weight to most recent performance and situations rather than looking at the big picture. This is because events that are recent, emotionally charged and/or unusual are the easiest to bring to mind, and therefore can have a greater effect on a decision than they should. 

Confirmation bias
Humans can take as little as four minutes to decide whether or not they like someone, and after this time is up it becomes exponentially harder to alter this opinion. Confirmation bias is the tendency for someone to search for, focus on, or remember information in a way that confirms their own initial perspectives of a person and subsequently overlook information that does not support the initial impression they had.

Endowment effect
The endowment effect is a concept based on the idea that people tend to ascribe more value to objects or resources that they own, even compared to identical objects that they do not own. This is translated into the working environment through managers and recruiters valuing the skills and characteristics of their current staff, resulting in a limited perception of who is considered a suitable candidate for a role and/or leadership material. More specifically, managers may be reluctant to hire new staff rather than promoting within, and more likely to hire new employees identical to the ones they have.

It is common for people in a group to possess a desire for harmony or conformity between its members, which quite often leads to the psychological phenomenon of “groupthink”. More specifically, groupthink refers to decisions being made based on the unified nature of the decision-makers and where individuals suppresses their own opinions so as not to upset the perceived group consensus.

Halo effect
The halo effect is a term used in many different disciplines such as marketing and psychology, to explain the effect that one positive or negative characteristic can have on an overall impression.

In human resources, this refers to someone’s opinion about a specific characteristic or property about someone creating a ‘halo’ and influencing their overall impression of that person.  A common example in recruitment is the influence that someone’s level of attractiveness will have on their interviewers overall impression of them.

Negativity Bias
People are more likely to be affected by negative memories and feelings rather than pleasant ones, which leads to the cognitive bias of negativity. This bias refers to humans being more inclined to consider negative factors about a person, and allowing them to outweigh the positives.

Functional Fixedness
For humans, it is very difficult to see past the original or obvious use or purpose of things. This prevents people from thinking “outside of the box” for resolutions and also plays into individuals being afraid to explore any different ways of doing things. This bias leads workplaces into keeping people/practices the same when the option of change would increase productivity.

Strategies for the workplace
Although cognitive biases are automatic and difficult to pinpoint, it is imperative that businesses take steps to eliminate or even just minimise their effect on human resources decision-making. Some examples of strategies businesses can use are;

To avoid management and human resource departments merely going through the motions without much examination of their choices being made, “interrupters” can be implemented. These are pauses or planned reflections throughout a decision process that force the decision maker to step back and assess the situation for any unconscious biases.

Open the conversation about cognitive bias
Ensuring that all human resource employees are aware of cognitive biases, their effects on business decisions and strategies to avoid them will result in them feeling more comfortable admitting to biases they didn’t realise they had.

Reevaluate your application process
This process should start with the way the job ad is written. All content of the ad should be genuinely essential for the role and not written in a way to sway towards a certain type of person. For example, “masculine words” will lead to more males applying than woman.

Interviews are understandably the recruitment process which is most susceptible to unconscious biases. For this reason, the weight of the interview should be reduced and overall hiring decisions should be based on a variety of different assessments. Besides this, the interview process can be improved by using structured interviews and standardised conditions. Using structured interviews with set questions will firstly ensure your interviewer is gaining the right insights and information, and with further help the interviewer to stay on the right track and avoid biases such as the confirmation bias and the beer test. To further these benefits, you should ensure that all interview conditions are the same for all applicants.

Once all your applications are in, all demographic information should be removed from the CV ad applications before assessing which applicants to continue in the recruitment process. This will allow recruiters to look purely on relevant qualifications, skills and experience minimising the risk of stereotyping.

Finally, to reduce the effects of biases such as the halo effect and the beer test, the final hiring decisions should be made by someone who has not been involved in any other stage of the assessment. These decision makers can be handed objective information and summaries of applicants’ performance at each stage of the process.

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