I was recently working with a client reviewing their recruitment process to ensure that there is consistency across their business with regard to interviewing employees.  During our conversation I pointed out that we had to be mindful of unconscious bias, and suggested that we include a few other people in the process to mitigate this.  Initially he was hesitant, as his first reaction was that I was judging him, his integrity and ability to show fairness.  So, in order to clarify where I was coming from, I explained the science behind the reason for my suggestion and this is where I am also going to start with this blog. It is important to note, that unconscious bias is not just relevant to recruitment, but throughout the entire lifecycle of a business and employee experience.


Daniel Kahneman’s Systems of Thinking

On average we have to make 35,000 decisions every day.  As we all know, sometimes having to consciously make three decisions can feel like overwhelm, so it is not possible to process that many on a deeper level.  From our past experiences and environment, we learn to make a lot of decisions on autopilot, i.e., getting out of bed, finishing the sentence “salt and ….”. These familiar tasks help our brain to make shortcuts (heuristics) so that we can function.  Meet System 1 – which aids us to makes decisions very quickly in an unconscious, effortlessway, without self-awareness or control.  Statistics show that System 1 makes up 98% of all our thinking.

According to Kahneman “The capabilities of System 1 include innate skills that we share with other animals. We are born ready to perceive the world around us, recognize objects, orient attention, avoid losses, and fear spiders.  System 1 has learned to associate between ideas; it has also learned skills such as reading and understanding the nuances of social situations.”

Moreover, System 1 takes over during emergencies and assigns priority only to self-protective actions. Imagine driving a car that unexpectedly skids on a slippery surface. You will notice that you responded to the threat before you became fully conscious of it, a characteristic of System 1.

System 2 on the other hand is slow, deliberate and conscious, effortful, rational and self-aware.  Research suggests that this system makes up 2% of our thinking.

Back to Kahneman,System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.  System 2 is the only one that can follow rules, compare objects on several attributes, and make deliberate choices between options. The automatic System 1 does not have these capabilities.

Examples of System 2 thinking include, trying to meet a friend at a fancy dress when everyone looks the same or trying to take notes in a noisy work environment.

Before you look at the picture below, by Eva Hill, I want you to look at it horizontally first, what do you see and then when you look at it vertically is there any change, have I influenced what you saw?

So how does the above relate to unconscious bias – we now know, our life experiences, background and environment all influence our decisions and choices at work.  Day to day, it may not cause a major issue.  However, when these influences cause us to favour or discriminate against perspective or current employees without us realising it, we need to examine them, in other words allow System 2 to do its work.

The overall impact to our business is that we will miss opportunities for growth, through poor recruitment choices and business decisions, without even realising it if we allow System 1 todo all the work.

Some of the types of biases we may encounter in the work environment are:

Affinity Bias – this is where we show a preference for people who we feel are similar to us in some way and find it easier to relate to.  Our similarities could be to do with class, ethnicity, environment and interests.  Going back to my client at interview stage, they may display this type of bias and result in them not hiring someone because they seem “different” to us.

Conformity Bias – this leads us to make our decisions based on another’s view rather than our own independent judgement.  In the workplace it may be the case that employees don’t feel confident or encouraged to speak up and voice their opinions.  It is important that as managers, team leaders, supervisors, we provide them with the psychological safety to enable them to do this. Having a diverse “them” generates more ideas and knowledge sharing, which can benefit the business.  All employees have tacit knowledge and if you don’t listen, how can you tap into this?

Confirmation Bias displaying this type of bias, we are looking for evidence that backs up our opinion of employees and we don’t take into account any new information or contradictory information, as we believe we are right.  We need to be very mindful of the fact that we should only ever deal with factual information.

Contrast Effect this occurs when we compare employees against each other in a positive or negative way, rather than their specific performance.  This leads to employees reduced productivity as a result of de-motivation.

Halo & Horn Effect – this happens when we focus on a good aspect of an employee, which leads to the “halo” glow.   This then overshadows our opinion about any negative aspect, which can result in a business choosing someone for a position and not addressing any work-related issues.  The opposite is the “horn” effect, where we focus on the negative aspects, and overlook their positive contribution to the business.

Gender Bias I am not sure that this needs much explanation, but it is important that employers understand that discriminating an employee as a result of their gender, can result in them being reprimanded under the Equality Act.  Equality legislation does not just apply to employees, it is also relevant at the recruitment stage of employment.

How can we counteract our biases?

1. Understanding the science – this allows employees not to take it too personally, it is not just them.  It does become an issue though if they fail to understand their own biases and let it impact their choices and decisions.
2. Self-Awareness – following on from the point above, asking ourselves if we are basing our thinking on “fact or fiction”.  Remember you should only deal with facts, not hearsay.
3. Top Down – As with most aspects of business, employees need to see the standards set from management.  There is no point in encouraging diversity, openness if the example they are being set doesn’t match.
4. Recruitment stage – engage a panel of more than one person to go through CV’s and ask people why they haven’t chosen someone as much as why they have chosen someone.
5. Set specific criteria for advertised roles and check that everyone involved is clear what the expectations are.
6. Provide guidelines and policies with regard to discrimination so everyone is clear.
7. Training in all of the above, which should include mangers providing examples of where they have made poor decisions based on their own biases and good decisions and the benefits.  Also, training in dealing with employees on a day to day basis, so they can make informed choices.
8. Encouragement of employees to voice their opinions without shame or judgement.  Consider incentives for shared knowledge and innovation.

The above is not an exhaustive list, as highlighted above, it is important to examine our biases and while we may not get it right all the time, we should notice over time that we become better at recognising the triggers and then we are giving our System 2 an opportunity to do its job.

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