When it comes to recruitment and selection we all know what conscious bias is: not picking a candidate because of their lack of ‘the old school tie’, selecting someone who has similar interests to you, or not picking a newly married woman because there’s a chance she will go on maternity leave.
Until relatively recently the assumption was that patterns of discriminatory behaviour were conscious and that people who knew better did the right thing.
Whilst conscious bias is a pernicious problem throughout society, there is now a voluminous evidence base to say with certainty that unconscious bias exists and, moreover, we all have some level of unconscious bias. We are all biased towards something, somebody, or some group. More uncomfortably, the opposite is also true.
We all have pre-conceived ideas. We are not immune from society’s stereotyping of certain groups. Our patterns of belief – and their impact – are so deeply ingrained, and so concealed in our unconscious, that it becomes difficult for us to fully understand their impact on our decision-making.
Stereotypes in the legal profession?
Ask a school child: What does a lawyer look like? More often than not they will describe a middle-aged man in a suit.
If we asked: what does a trainee solicitor look like? What would solicitors describe? Many will think of a new graduate, fresh out of the LLB and Diploma. If asked, they’d probably say female, white, and likely to be in her early 20s.
Solicitors come from all backgrounds. Trainee solicitors do too.
Case study 1: He’d just fit in here!
Imagine you are interviewing two candidates: James and Jasmine. Both have the same school grades, went to the same university and gained a strong 2:1. They are both in their early 20s.
James reminds you of yourself as a youngster. You have that sense of familiarity. Chemistry, even. You warm to him. You aren’t really sure why but your mind begins to generate justifications (‘I just liked the cut of his jib’, ‘he seems like a straightforward guy’, ‘the kind of guy who’d fit well into the team’). As you walk to the interview room, you chat with him about an extra-curricular activity that he has done and that you used to do.
In the interview, he is very nervous. The first question leads to him stumbling over his words. You understand what it is like to be interviewed and put him at ease. ‘It is ok, take your time, let me ask the question again’. This time James knocks the question out of the park and the rest of the interview goes swimmingly.
Jasmine is interviewed next. There is nothing that is too negative about her but there is just no spark. The entire interview is very business-like. She’s nervous but answers the questions well enough.
When you speak to a co-worker about the two candidates you say: ‘James was great! He’d fit in here. I think he’d do well with our team and our clients’. When asked about Jasmine? ‘She could do the job but I’m not sure she is what we are looking for’.
This is the sort of minor thing that could happen in any interview situation. It isn’t deliberate. Your own role in influencing the outcome is invisible to you – driven by your comfortableness with James.
Case Study 2: What’s in a name?
Researchers at MIT and the University of Chicago have discovered that people’s names can unconsciously impact people’s decision-making. These researchers distributed 5,000 CVs to 1,250 employers who were advertising employment opportunities. The CVs had a key distinction in them: some were mailed out with names that were determined to be ‘’typically white’’, others with names that were ‘’typically black’’. Each company was sent four applications: one of each race that was considered average; and one of each race that was considered ‘’highly skilled’.
Applications with ‘typically white’ names received 50% more callbacks than those with ‘typically black names’.
Highly skilled ‘typically white’ named candidates received more callbacks than average ‘typically white’ named candidates. There was- - however – no difference in callback rates between highly skilled and average ‘’typically black’’ named candidates.
Most astonishingly: Average ‘typically white’ named candidates received more callbacks than high skilled ‘typically black’ named candidates.
The research from MIT and the University of Chicago shows that even names can unconsciously impact people'. If such unconscious bias can happen with names, it could easily happen with age, marital status, where the applicant studied etc.
Case Study 3: CV Blind Policy
In 2014, Clifford Chance, the international law firm, moved to a ‘CV blind’ policy for final interviews with all would be trainee solicitors. Staff at the firm conducting interviews are no longer given information about the candidate’s educational background (e.g. where they studied). For the final interview, all the interviewers have is the candidate’s name.
The first year saw a far more diverse educational background amongst the firm’s trainee population. The change in policy actually encouraged a wider pool of applications. It also tripled the intake of black, Pakistani and Bangladeshi candidates within two years.
In reality this isn’t a ‘’blind policy’’ but a blinkered one. Only certain sections of the process are anonymised.
For small training organisations, the person doing the initial sift may be the same person doing the interviews and such a policy may be impossible to implement in those circumstances. For larger organisations, a CV Blind – or CV Blinkered – policy might be worth considering.
How do we overcome unconscious bias?
1. Recognise that we all have unconscious biases
2. Identify your biases – we tend to think our assumptions about groups of individuals are justified, based on valid statistical information, when – in fact – they are overexaggerated. One way of starting to understand our unconscious biases is to take the Implicit Association Test (https://implicit.harvard.edu). You may find the results uncomfortable!
3. Dissect and confront your biases!
4. Avoid snap decisions – gut feelings maximise our unconscious biases.
5. Encourage applications from under-represented groups.
6. Review every aspect of the employment life-cycle for hidden bias – application form screening, interviews, performance evaluation, promotion etc.
7. Take part – and encourage colleagues to take part - in the Law Society of Scotland’s Equality and Diversity work (including the survey of the profession every three years).
8. Numerous education providers in Scotland – including the Society – occasionally run Unconscious Bias Training. Look out for those events and sign up if you can.