Tackling unconscious bias in HR departments

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With HR departments increasingly having to implement diversity initiatives, specifically within staffing and recruitment, one area that is growing in importance is that of unconscious bias.

The main aim here is how to tackle the “unconsciousness” element, as most of us already know that we are biased in one way or the other. But what about the choices we make, and the hidden aspects, which influence the decision-making process? In recruitment in particular, this may lead to unfavourable selection of applicants as it often comes town to a 'gut feeling' or 'when it feels that somebody would be the right fit'. Often, without realising, we hold unconscious beliefs or opinions about people with specific attributes, which can influence decisions in recruitment and performance management.

Awareness and unconscious bias

Previously, it was assumed that patterns of discriminatory actions are made consciously; people who were aware of this would change their behaviour to do the right thing. It is not as simple as saying that good people are not biased and embrace inclusiveness; and that, on the contrary, bad people are biased and act upon them.

Essentially, we are all biased towards a group, somebody or something. Every single person is influenced by a number of different factors, including educational background, gender, ethnicity, age, upbringing and so forth. We all have biases that are hidden and deep-rooted in our belief systems. Some of these biases are conscious, for example, you know if you have a preference of your home country over a specific foreign country, and others unconscious. These hidden biases shape our behaviour and actions without us realising that they do.

For HR professionals, it is expected that they make unbiased decisions, which are objective and reasonable. The truth is, we all make biased decisions, but we can tackle the hidden ones to make us aware of what is determining our actions. Generally speaking, being aware of unconscious bias can create a more inclusive company culture as well as increase the talent pool for your organisation. The reason for this is that with lower levels of unconscious bias, you will reach higher objectivity when it comes to recruitment. You enable your staff to select the best candidate, who is most suitable for the job, instead of making a biased decision.

Organisational unconsciousness

Unconscious bias and behaviour can not only be found in the individual, but at an organisational level as well. This is why it is often difficult to implement new diversity strategies as it requires change of the corporate culture at all levels. Corporate or organisational culture is created over a rather long period of time and reflects an accumulation of basic assumptions, views, ways of interpreting things, and evaluating certain behaviour.

In many cases the corporate culture of an organisation is defined by its values or “philosophy”, which has been developed and defined by internal and external influences. This can determine certain 'norms of behaviour' or 'unconscious organisational patterns', which are expected to be appreciated by all employees.

Particularly in long-established businesses, these values are deep-routed and implementing diversity initiatives can be challenging. This is why diversity in ways of tackling unconscious bias should follow a holistic approach, also considering and re-assessing organisational unconscious in order to change established patterns, beliefs and behaviours.

How to combat unconscious bias

One way of tackling unconscious bias is by providing your staff with training before the next recruitment phase or as part of a wider inclusion and diversity training programme. Training enables staff to increase their self-awareness and reflection, and gives them the opportunity to discover their unconscious preconceptions influencing their behaviour. The bottom line is: only when we know what is influencing us can we change our actions.

Seven tips to tackle unconscious bias:

  1. Be aware and accept the fact that we all make biased decision - this is natural for every human being. The key is to increase self-awareness and understand that hidden biases go beyond our usual perception of ourselves and others.
  2. Re-define the labels you use: Away from 'discrimination and intolerance', and  towards 'diversity, equity and inclusion'.
  3. Rethink different facets of the employee life cycle regarding unconscious biases: how do you read CVs and applications, run interviews (and are your questions biased), train new staff in their induction programme, send employees on assignments, evaluate performance and organise appraisals, make decisions on promotions or withdrawal?
  4. Review your company values and investigate which hidden biases may be the grounding for your organisational culture.
  5. Get into the habit of rewarding employees who actively participate in diversity initiatives. This leads to higher appreciation amongst the whole organisation and sets expectations towards valued behaviour amongst staff.
  6. Run anonymous surveys to identify biases within your organisation. This can also be done by a third party as an opportunity to make complaints, which might not be seen as biased in some organisations.
  7. HR departments should run and attend training on unconscious bias. This will help minimise biased decisions and increase diversity thinking amongst your organisation.

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