We know that bias can be harmful and is a problem for many companies. But, how do we stop bias if those involved aren’t aware they’re doing it? In my article, I will explore the concept of unconscious bias, how it affects organisations and their staff, and how to stop it from influencing your view of performance.
What’s the problem?
We have seen an uplift in the number of companies making commitments to tackling systemic bias and inequality, and efforts made by many groups to raise awareness of the issues. However, the reality is that there still some way to go, and the numbers paint a stark picture.
Research by the Centre for Social Investigation in 2019, in which thousands of fake applications were sent out for real jobs, showed applicants from minority groups needed to send 60% more applications to receive as many call-backs. This research used a number of “fake” candidate profiles, varying the minority background of the candidates, but keeping experience and qualifications constant.
These outcomes are of course not intentional, but the result of building systems (in this case a recruitment process) that rely on human judgement of others. We have our own bias, that is shaped by our background and upbringing, and which we unconsciously apply all the time. It’s this unconscious bias which – when left unchallenged – creates the outcomes we see.
As uncomfortable as it sounds, this is the reality that we really need to tackle if we are going to truly bring about change.
How does this affect organisations?
By standing back and looking at a process through an inclusivity lens, we can start to see some of the issues within the systems we have built, and when you do that you will start to realise that our challenge goes far beyond the hiring engine. Any decision point in an organisation where judgements are made about people will face the same systemic issues.
One of these is how we think about employee performance. Many performance management approaches rely on managers making judgements about people, which we know will be influenced by unconscious bias, which may result in us misidentifying Talent altogether.
Workplace Psychologist Ian MacRae explains “Companies that hire or promote based on superficial and irrelevant characteristics put themselves at a competitive disadvantage. Ignoring top talent and high potential because of unconscious bias creates a leaky and inefficient talent pipeline.”
A truly diverse workplace means a wider variety of opinions, skills, points of view and ways of working which boosts productivity and creativity in a company. There is lots of research that demonstrates that more diverse businesses are likely to have much better organisational performance, so removing subjectivity from the business should be a board level priority. Why would you restrict your organisation by maintaining processes which have resulted in having a poor levels of representation?
The impact of a culture which includes subjective ways of rating and rewarding workers affects everyone. That’s because people don’t really know what is expected of them, and as the outcome is based on opinion and personal feeling, there is a chance people will perceive the outcomes as unfair.
How can we solve this?
The answer to these issues is in the data.
“Good selection and retention policies are like good science: decisions should be based on the best available evidence and data, while personal biases are understood but not used for decision-making.” Ian MacRae, Workplace Psychologist.
Confronting bias can be uncomfortable – making managers aware of how their unconscious bias affects decisions around performance is a difficult but necessary exercise. Using data to informs decisions can help by firstly identifying groups of people and areas within the business that have been disproportionately affected by bias; and secondly to provide a fairer framework for measuring performance going forward.
With this in mind, now is the time to consider the role of a traditional performance measurement approach, which involves asking managers for a predominantly subjective opinion annually, and whether it’s the most appropriate way of thinking about performance measurement. A performance snapshot enables you to ask managers very specific, detailed focussed questions around performance and development at different points in time.
This in turn enables you to create real, actionable insight and data required for a true assessment of performance and potential. Bias is a part of our human experience so we need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable and address our biases to remove them from decision making and trust the data.