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Removing unconscious bias

Nick Gallimore

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.

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