Recruitment decisions fundamentally impact organisations’ cultures, brands and financial bottom-lines. Yet these decisions are too often made based on intuitive hunches – the sense that a candidate ‘feels like one of us’ or that a partner would ‘get on well here’.
While fit is undeniably important in recruitment, an over reliance on these intangibles leaves us vulnerable to making decisions skewed by our unconscious biases. This article explores how unconscious bias can affect the recruitment process, and how we can minimise any adverse impact.
What is unconscious bias?
In a world that is busier and more chaotic than ever, our unconscious bias is our way of quickly organising what would otherwise be an overwhelming influx of cognitive information. It enables us to make quick judgements without having to process everything we experience in detail.
Though both natural and unavoidable, these biases have a direct impact on how we perceive the people we meet. Whether you know it or not, your brain instinctively categorises people and assigns them a set of characteristics based on a number of crude markers – age, ethnicity, gender, physical attractiveness, disability, etc. This routine social categorisation is based a combination of past experience and unspoken societal consensus as to the values a group is assigned.
What is at stake?
Historically, organisations have been reluctant to admit that their recruitment may be biased. Yet the diversity statistics of law firms reflect an industry that continues to be homogenous at senior levels. Our unconscious biases are in our cognitive blind spot – even if we don’t intend to make biased recruitment decisions, failing to recognise that we all carry biases means that we inevitably will.
This is not to suggest that hiring ‘people like you’ is a bad thing per se – rather, that it is increasingly clear that diversity not only matters, it pays. A recent McKinsey study into diversity and financial performance concluded that gender diverse companies are 15% more likely to outperform the national industry median, with ethnically diverse companies being 35% more likely. There is a clear financial rationale for tackling the issue of unconscious bias head on.
Examples of common biases that can affect the recruitment process
1. Confirmation bias – Tendency to search for, interpret and/or recall information in a way that confirms your perception.
E.g. having heard rumours that a candidate is a very strong performer, steering the conversation in a direction that covers his/her strengths and successes but ignores any potential weaknesses or red flags.
2. Affinity bias – Preference for candidates who are most ‘like you’, i.e. a bias towards somebody with a background similar to yours.
E.g. giving a candidate who went to the same university as you the benefit of the doubt during an interview.
3. Salience – Tendency to focus on a candidate’s most easily recognisable feature(s).
E.g. subconsciously judging a minority candidate based on the performance of the only minority candidate in your team.
4. Status bias – Deferring to the opinion of the most senior decision maker.
E.g. not raising your doubts about a candidate’s business plan because another more senior individual has looked over it and had no objections.
5. Satisfaction bias – Jumping to a decision prematurely because it at least gives you an answer.
E.g. making a decision on a candidate within the first five minutes of an interview because you need the time to mentally prepare for an important client call happening directly afterwards.
How can recruiting partners address unconscious bias?
Firms are increasingly requiring partners involved in recruitment activities to undergo unconscious bias training. This raises awareness and allows individuals to understand the issues. What kinds of steps does this training teach?
- Recognising that you have biases
- Identifying what those biases are
- Understanding those biases
How law firms are working to minimise the influence of bias in the recruitment process:
1. At trainee level: adopting a blind CV policy
Recent years have seen some firms adopting a blind CV policy at the trainee level, meaning that interviewing partners are not given information as to what school/university a candidate attended (public vs. private, Oxbridge or not, etc.) ahead of the interview. The aim is to remove any biases created in situations when candidates and interviewers share similar academic backgrounds. Firms that have implemented blind CV policies include Clifford Chance, Macfarlanes and Mayer Brown.
2. At partner level: engaging an external due diligence provider
Firms are increasingly using external due diligence providers to supplement any references provided by a candidate. Sourcing the opinions of ex-colleagues and market contemporaries of a candidate can highlight instances where the recruitment process has been corrupted by unconscious biases in the candidate’s favour. While due diligence doesn’t remove bias from the process, it is a good final check for cases where it has played a role.
3. At all levels: formalising a recruitment process designed to minimise the impact of bias
Recruitment processes are most likely to succumb to unconscious bias when they are run by too few people on too tight timelines. Making sure that your firm’s recruitment process involves representatives from across various social groups and provides ample time for interviewers to make a considered decision can be key in minimising the potential for biased decision making.
In summary, unconscious biases are a feature of human psychology. If we recognise and understand these biases, we will be more effective in managing them and any possible negative impact.