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The word ‘bias’ is a loaded term for hiring professionals. Our brain’s natural instinct to seek out patterns in behaviour, aesthetics, and speech, then link them back to our own perceptions and experiences, can potentially harm the hiring process. It can lead to exclusion and under-representation in the workforce and threaten the power of diversity in business.
Being labelled as biased is an insult no matter which part of the hiring process you operate in. However, being biased is a natural part of our human experience. In order to have a proactive conversation about how we can analyse our bias in the recruitment process, it’s critical that we take time to understand how and why it happens.
Joe Gerstandt is a consultant who helps businesses like Walmart, Toyota and Boeing tackle their diversity and inclusion issues. While working with SocialTalent to develop our Diversity and Inclusion training library, Gerstandt sheds some light on why we feel so attacked when somebody accuses us of being biased.
“For a long time, we have associated bias with what kind of person you are. We cling to the idea that there are two groups of people in the world. Good people, who are open minded, non-judgemental and free of bias. And bad people who are close-minded, judgemental and steeped in bias”
Gerstandt points out that most training to unconscious bias stems from this thinking.
“We focus on finding the people who display biased behaviour and trying to weed out their bias. However, this leaves all of the other “good” people out of the conversation. There is no such thing as a non-judgemental human being. We have natural blindspots and once we learn to identify them we can train ourselves to check them”
By only focusing on educating the people who demonstrate obvious bias, organisations leave themselves open to potentially harmful outcomes. Bias don’t require any hatred or bigotry, humans are naturally driven to find patterns in the world around them. It’s an automatic reaction. Two people can interpret the same thing very differently and believe themselves to be correct.
A classic example is optical illusions. People don’t choose to be bamboozled by optical illusions but one image can appear obviously, or maybe altered, to different people.
This optical illusion is known as the Müller-Lyer illusion, the two horizontal lines are the same length, but one can appear much longer than the other. This gives us a small insight into how our minds can be tricked into being biased.
Why are we biased?
Everyone likes to think of themselves as unbiased but it’s a natural by-product of living and processing the world around us. Gerstandt has identified three key elements that lead to bias manifestation.
1. Information overload
We are constantly surrounded by stimuli all vying for our attention. Even as you read this you are aware of movement, sounds, and smells around you.
Your brain is tasked with interpreting all of this at once. It can be difficult to focus your attention on one thing when your senses are crowded.
2. Lack of clarity
With all of this information whizzing around us, it can be hard to decipher the exact meaning of what you are seeing or hearing. When the answer isn’t immediately obvious our brains have learned to fill in the blanks.
3. The need for a quick decision
When we are under pressure to make snap decisions we can subconsciously skip the part of the process where we digest the information we are receiving. This can force us to either overlook details or make assumptions, both of which contribute to biased behaviour.
All of these points can be occurring simultaneously which can force us to take mental shortcuts and build bias in our minds.
The conscious and unconscious brain
Gerstandt uses a well-known riddle to help us understand how much of our brains activity is unconscious.
“A father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad. The son is rushed to the hospital; just as he’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate—that boy is my son!”
Boston University published a study; A Riddle Reveals Depth Gender Bias, which discusses children’s answers to this riddle. Many of them failing to imagine that the surgeon could be the boy’s mother. In fact, the prospect of the surgeon being the boy’s second gay father came before the idea of a female surgeon.
Gertsandt points out that we all know and believe that not all surgeons are men, our conscious brain is well aware of that. However, we can still be stumped at this simple riddle because our brain is trying to find a pattern. The idea of a male surgeon is more familiar to us, so it becomes a pattern.
Gerstandt is quick to acknowledge this doesn’t stem from hatred or bigotry, it’s simply our subconscious brain acting quicker than our conscious brain.
The conscious part of our brain operates at a much slower pace. We engage this part of our brain for complex tasks, decision making and problem-solving. It’s much slower and more accurate than our unconscious brain.
Through his years of experience working as an educator and consultant and speaker in the diversity space, Joe Gerstandt is well used to working through these processes with companies and individuals.
“Once you realise you have a default image of what a certain type of person looks like (think male surgeon) you can start to appreciate that interviews can become unintentionally skewed. We have to make sure that we can recognise talent in whichever packaging it presents itself. We want to make sure that access and opportunity are as widely distributed as talent”
In an effort to understand your bias it’s critical that you take positive action. Try and eliminate time pressures that that can lead you to make snap decisions.
For recruiters and other hiring professionals, Gertsandt reveals there are small steps you can take to check your bias while you work. He highlights three questions you should ask yourself when you are deliberating and generally making decisions in the workplace.
Let’s take reading resumes as an example. Many recruiters believe that resumes are a factual document. In fact, they have a lot of information that is open to interpretation. This leaves room for us to make assumptions. Using these three questions we can tackle these assumptions in a more cognisant way.
- Do I know this, or do I think I know it?
- Where is the evidence?
- Can this evidence be interpreted differently?
These three questions will automatically cause you to slow down your thinking process and analyse data differently. By making this a habit you can slowly but surely revel and work on your own bias.
For more fascinating insights from Joe Gerstandt and other Diversity and Inclusion experts on topics like hiring people with disabilities, trans inclusivity and equality in the workplace check out our D&I training on the SocialTalent platform