"Most of us believe that we are ethical and unbiased. We imagine we’re good decision makers, able to objectively size up a job candidate or a venture deal and reach a fair and rational conclusion that’s in our, and our organization’s, best interests. But more than two decades of research confirms that, in reality, most of us fall woefully short of our inflated self-perception." – Mahzarin Banaji, Harvard University researcher

Up to 78% of talent and hiring managers are influenced by striving for diversity in the way they hire. Yet despite our best efforts, biases are both natural and unavoidable. Whether or not we are aware of it, our brain aims to categorize and classify people based on a number of markers such as: gender, attractiveness, age, ethnicity and many others. For instance, a study has shown that attractive people are automatically perceived as more sociable, successful and happier than others. So it is only natural to recognize that there still must be bias in recruitment, as those in charge of the hiring decisions may at times not be aware of these classifications.

So, what is unconscious bias?

“Unconscious biases are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness,” according to the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). As stated by UCSF, we all possess unconscious beliefs about people’s identities, which are coming from our propensity to classify our social existence into categories. Its impact on hiring can come in a number of forms with one of the most commonly observed ones being the so-called similarity-attraction theory – mostly referred to our likelihood to hire people similar to ourselves.

Why should this be important to us?

Putting aside the moral and ethical importance, removing bias in today’s world would mean improving on diversity in the workplace, which often results in a stronger employer brand. A recent survey showed that 62% of participants were not happy about the cultural and intellectual diversity in their organizations. Similarly, 83% of millennial employees have said that they feel more invested in their workplace if they are exposed to a diverse and inclusive environment. Interestingly, only 60% of them thought that their leadership was sharing the same mindset.

But not only does diversity improve the overall workplace culture - it also pays. According to McKinsey’s recent study, gender diverse companies are 15% more likely to outperform the US’ national industry median, and ethnically diverse ones even 35% more so.

How does the unconscious bias affect the recruitment process?

Developing the Research Basis for Controlling Bias in Hiring, by Marc Bendick and Ana Nunes, explores a number of studies with respect to unconscious bias and candidate assessment. These studies found that the recruiters who went through candidate assessment holding unconscious stereotypes misjudged the participants in a number of ways. Some of these included: interpreting ambiguity as a confirmation of their beforehand established stereotypes; searching for confirmation of their biases rather than the contradictions; doubting information threatening to invalidate the bias; and making systematic memory mistakes consistent with confirming their biases.

It was these unconscious biases that encouraged the hiring managers to think that they were making an impartial decision regarding the participants’ qualifications, when the trust is, it was quite the opposite. Kristen Pressen addresses this sentiment masterfully in her TED Talk on unconscious bias, explaining how the last person to have a conscious bias may be the first one with an unconscious one.

Unconscious biases are nothing but a part of human psyche. Hiring decisions are prone to becoming victims to unconscious bias – and even more so when recruitment processes are lead by an insufficient number of recruiters and too little time to make premeditated decisions. Companies that include people from various social circles in their hiring and interviewing process, and allow enough time for decision-making, can significantly improve their hiring practices and minimize the impact of bias.

With all this in mind, unconscious biases can be just as dangerous for organizations as conscious ones or discrimination. As long as we can recognize and understand them, we can be more efficient in managing and preventing them. Promoting and implementing diversity in the workplace must be one of the priorities – as much as in terms of culture, as for licit and financial reasons, too.

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