August 2007 –
Tackling bias in recruitment
How biased are you towards others? The question matters
to all of us. To those in recruitment or management, regularly
undertaking appraisals or selection, it matters a lot.
Beyond the obvious legal implications of discriminatory
behaviour, it makes sense to ensure that the best people
are doing the jobs where they are needed most. But nearly
all of us display an unconscious bias in almost everything
we do and often the bias is greater than we might imagine.
If you don’t believe me, can I suggest you visit
the Harvard University web site and undertake one of its
Implicit Association tests*. The online tests are part of
a long-running research programme in to unconscious preferences
called Project Implicit, shared between a number of universities
in the US.
I came across these tests some time ago but didn’t
pay much attention to them possibly because I was reluctant
to believe my scores on one of the tests that showed a bias
against people with disabilities.
Returning to the site this week it didn’t help to
find that these results are quite normal. The data collected
so far indicate that a third of those undertaking this particular
test displayed a “strong automatic preference”
for people without disabilities. Some 27 per cent of those
undertaking the tests registered a moderate preference and
16 per cent, as I did, a slight automatic preference.
This means that more than three-quarters of people in the
research to date have shown some unconscious bias in favour
of those without disabilities. Some 15 per cent revealed
little or no bias and the rest - less than 10 per cent -
showed some bias in favour of the disabled.
In a similar test looking at bias in regard to black and
white people, some 70 per cent showed some preference towards
white people against 12 per cent in favour of black people
and 17 per cent with no preference. I registered a slight
automatic preference towards whites.
I had revisited the tests after a discussion about heuristics
over lunch last week with Binna Kandola, visiting professor
at Sheffield University’s Institute of Work Psychology
and senior partner at Pearn Kandola, Oxford-based occupational
In psychology heuristsics are sometimes described as inherent
rules, either learned or innate, that influence our decisions.
What some might describe as “gut feel” is a
product of heuristics and, in some cases, can result in
One example of such hidden influences is a predisposition
in some people to buy things in shops that are expensive,
based on a belief that if something carries a high price
tag it must be desirable. Such items are sometimes referred
to as “Veblen goods” in acknowledgement of Thorstein
Veblen’s theories on status seeking through what he
called conspicuous consumption.
As the Veblen goods phenomenon demonstrates, heuristics
can lead to distorted judgements. Prof Kandola recalled
a study that looked at training approaches in the Israeli
air force. Officers deliberately abandoned congratulating
the trainees who made good landings because they noticed
a drop in performance among those who had done well previously.
The assumption was that giving people a pat on the back
encouraged complacency when, in fact, the trainee flyers
were simply regressing to the mean. The ones that had landed
well had been fortunate and could not repeat their success
every time. But this did not mean they would not benefit
The Implicit Association tests appear to expose our hidden
prejudices and preferences over a whole range of subjects.
But they have attracted some controversy in the past few
years, partly because their feedback often runs counter
to individual perceptions.
It’s not easy for someone who regards himself as
an open-minded liberal to find that his behaviours may be
guided by unconscious influences drawn from past experiences.
If you remain sceptical, however, try to observe your
seating choices the next time you board a train. In my experience
people on commuter trains are exceptionally choosy about
where they sit. All kinds of factors influence their decisions,
primarily ones of space – a double-seat is prized
and often defended by placing a bag or newspaper on the
The need for space means that passengers are looking at
the size of the person they will be sitting next to; cleanliness
is a factor too, as is body language and physical appearance.
Does race come in to it? We hope not but I suspect sometimes
that it does even if the result is positive when a conscious
action overrules any unconscious bias.
One problem with these tests is that they do not measure
our capacity for compensating behaviours.
Using the racial bias tests as a basis for some further
research, Pearn Kandola compared the results from three
groups of people. One group was simply asked to do the tests
and reflected the kind of bias measured across the broader
population. A second group was asked to be as fair as they
possibly could be in their reactions to black and white
faces and the bias was halved.
A third group was asked to react as quickly when they saw
a black face as they did when they saw a white face and
the bias all but disappeared. A self-knowledge of bias,
therefore, seemed to enable people to introduce successful
This means we’re not blinded to the colour of our
skins or any other apparent difference, and should not fool
ourselves in to thinking we are. We cannot ignore these
differences, but we can see beyond them. What is more difficult,
perhaps, is to ignore assumptions that might accompany our
The first time I went to New York, about 20 years ago,
I remember how difficult it was for black people to hail
a cab. Most of the cabs were driven by white taxi drivers
who associated a black face with potential trouble. Today
New York taxis are driven by people from a wide variety
of ethic groups and black people are represented throughout
the social strata. Racial bias is no longer a limiting factor
in finding a cab.
Diversity is happening in the workplace. But it must happen
in a way that allows people to take notice of differences
and deal with them sensibly them rather than adopting some
pretence that differences do not exist.
Prof Kandola is suspicious of diversity policies that try
to reflect the composition, be it age, gender or ethnic
background, of the customer base. “That seems twisted.
It isn’t promoting a diverse workforce,” he
It may be that the most important point of these tests
is that acceptance of existing bias is, in itself, a step
in trying to eliminate the possible negative consequences
of such bias. The test findings suggest that the vast majority
of recruiters who declare impartiality are not only lying
to the candidates, they are lying to themselves. The way
forward if you seek to recruit the best people is to face
up to your bias and deal with it.