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The Impact of Unconscious Bias on Race in Recruitment

Unconscious bias has a huge impact on race in recruitment, and whilst employers and recruitment agencies must do more to address the issue amongst their teams, recruiters and hiring managers both need to take responsibility for addressing their own biases.

Unconscious bias has a huge impact on race in recruitment, and whilst employers and recruitment agencies must do more to address the issue amongst their teams, recruiters and hiring managers both need to take responsibility for addressing their own biases. 

The McKinsey Consultancy found that organisation’s with greater racial diversity were 30% more likely to perform better, and the American Sociological Association found that for every 1% rise in racial diversity in a workforce, there was a 9% rise in sales revenue. With such a strong business case for employing candidates from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds, smart employers should have the recruitment of BME candidates at the top of their corporate agenda.

Whilst more organisations are placing an emphasis on recruiting from the pool of the 11% of the UK working population that are from BME backgrounds, many are failing. There are a number of factors to take into account as to why this is, but one of the key reasons identified for organisations’ poor performance in this area is unconscious bias.

Unconscious biases are biases that people are often totally unaware of, but which have an impact on their decision making, and in recruitment, unconscious bias can have an overwhelming effect on whether or not a candidate is successful.

There are numerous types of unconscious biases which affect people in different ways. Affinity bias for example, leads to people hiring in their own image, and stereotypes can also impact on how candidates are perceived as to whether they ‘fit in’ with the recruiter’s or hiring manager’s unconscious perception of the ‘right candidate’ for the role. In the application process, factors such as a candidate’s name implying that they come from a BME background could be the difference in the recruiter’s unconscious decision making process, and could ultimately determine whether the application goes in the yes or no pile.

When looking at the impact of unconscious bias in relation to race in recruitment, there’s a wealth of research highlighting the dramatic effect that unconscious bias can have on candidates from BME backgrounds chances of success. One of the most in-depth studies in this area was commissioned by the UK government and found that applicants who had white sounding names were far more likely to receive a positive response to an application than those with BME sounding names. In the study, applicants who appeared to be white, typically received a positive response after sending nine applications (10.7% success). In comparison, applicants who appeared to be from BME backgrounds (with the same qualifications and experience) had to send 16 applications before receiving a similar response (6.2% success).

Unconscious bias is an issue that needs to be addressed by employers, and legally it is somewhat of a grey area, as there are often solid grounds for a discrimination claim. There are four key reasons for organisations to take into account when looking at addressing unconscious bias in the recruitment process:

·  Legal – The Equality Act 2010 makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate because of race, colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin.

·  Performance – Unconscious bias in the recruitment process may mean that certain groups of individuals are easily discounted, meaning the best candidate for the job may not be hired, which over time will impact an organisation’s performance.

·  Financial – There are huge financial implications associated with discrimination and tribunals, and oppositely there are huge financial rewards for diverse organisations.

·  Morale – Employers have a moral obligation to ensure that their recruitment process is fair and ethical.

Increasingly there is a popularity around removing names from CVs in order to remove the possibility of unconscious bias, whilst this quick fix may lead to some short term success, ultimately there is a deeper rooted issue that needs to be addressed. Whilst I strongly agree that employers and recruitment agencies must do more to tackle unconscious bias within their teams through training and raising awareness at all levels, recruiters and hiring managers also need to take personal responsibility for their own biases.

It’s not until we recognise our biases that we can start to overcome them. There are a number of ways identify your unconscious biases, one of which is Project Implicit, an Implicit Association Test (IAT) that is a live study from Harvard University investigating thoughts and feelings that exist outside of conscious awareness. The IAT has a number of online free tests available to identify your biases, including race and skin-tone. Take the IAT online

Biases, whether conscious or unconscious, are a choice and we each have the power to overcome them by first identifying them and then learning how to manage them. I would encourage all recruiters and hiring managers to take responsibility for addressing their own biases and to take the IAT as a starting point.

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