Consciously working to address unconscious bias

By David Reynolds

November 24, 2017

While most of us accept the prevailing theory that blind CVs go a long way to redressing unconscious bias in recruitment, as an industry it is incumbent upon us to look seriously at the recent Australian government’s report which casts doubt on this widely-held belief.

The Going blind to see more clearly study, produced by the Department of the Prime Minister’s Behavioural Economics Team (BETA), was published in June. The study claims that not only do blind recruitment practices to address unconscious bias not work; they are in fact potentially undermining the chances of women and minority groups making it to interview.

The report indicated, in some cases, blind CVs had the opposite effect as the study revealed stripping identifying information sometimes led to fewer women and minority candidate’s applications proceeding to the next stage for interview.

It would be fair to say the report has quite figuratively thrown a cat among the pigeons and suggests there is still much more work to be done to ensure women and minority groups have equal access to employment.

Furthermore, while the report does raise some interesting questions and offers some relevant insight into unconscious bias in hiring, it must be considered in context.

Unconscious bias consensus was built on solid research

There has been close to universal support of blind recruiting practices for some years now as the need to address bias has become more apparent and as smart employers understand the benefits of having a diverse workforce.

A 2015 report by McKinsey & Company – Why Diversity Matters – reveals that companies in the top quarter percentile in terms of gender, racial and ethnic diversity achieve higher financial returns while companies in the bottom quartile statistically, are less likely to achieve returns which are above average.

A 2010 Australian National University Study – Does Racial and Ethnic Discrimination Vary Across Minority Groups? Evidence from a Field Experiment – held a similar experiment to that conducted by BETA and reported significantly different results.

The 2010 ANU study saw 4000 fictitious job applications sent to employers who advertised positions across a number of roles from administration to sales.

The study found that “candidates” with Anglo-centric sounding names had a significantly higher chance of securing an interview than someone with a foreign or indigenous sounding name. Applicants with Chinese sounding names had only a 20% chance of securing an interview.

The study struck a chord with the Australian Human Rights Commission which said: “arguably this is a symptom of unconscious bias as much as conscious discrimination against those of non-English speaking backgrounds.”

“It would be foolish and short-sighted to reject the BETA study out-of-hand simply because it does contradict so many previous reports.”

The Diversity Council of Australia continues to espouse the benefits of a diverse and multicultural workforce saying culturally diverse workplaces report higher levels of productivity, higher employee satisfaction, reduced employee turnover and an increase in creativity and innovation.

While the majority – if not all – previous studies on unconscious bias indicate a strong commercial and ethical need to encourage diverse workplaces, the BETA study is a voice in the wilderness.

However, this does not mean it should be dismissed without investigation. Professor Michael J Hiscox, Director of BETA said the study revealed that more attention needed to be directed to processes which affect career trajectories such as performance reviews, evaluations for promotions, talent management and whether flexible working arrangements are available.

If there is evidence that blind recruitment does not work, more needs to be done to find ways which “level the playing field” for candidates to ensure the bias of individual recruitment consultants – conscious and unconscious – does not negatively impact candidates and the recruitment agency they are working for.

It would be foolish and short-sighted to reject the BETA study out-of-hand simply because it does contradict so many previous reports.

Recruit Smarter pilot gaining steam

The Victorian government has been admirably pro-active in addressing the issue of multi-sector unconscious bias and is now undertaking the Recruit Smarter pilot program, being run by the Department of Premier and Cabinet with the Centre for Ethical Leadership.

The Recruit Smarter program has received widespread support from the local sector with a number of large organisations trialling the model which strips job applications of all identifiable material such as name, gender and geographical location of the candidate.

The Recruit Smarter program has adopted a recruitment approach which includes:

  • De-identification of identifiers on resumes and applications such as name, gender and location
  • Structured job interviews
  • Culturally sensitive language in job advertisements
  • Culturally sensitive on-boarding and induction process
  • The use of bias mitigation prompters throughout the recruitment and selection process.

Belinda Clark, former CEO of the Victorian Public Service Commission, warned that unconscious bias wholly disregards the value an individual offers to a workplace, regardless of their race, gender or sexuality.

“Such discrimination can have broad reaching influence on workplace’s hiring practices by overlooking an individual’s unique capabilities and placing some candidates at a disadvantage,” Clark reiterated.

“The rationale for eliminating unconscious bias from our workplaces is obvious; it is clearly a pervasive barrier to diversity which can hinder team and organisational effectiveness.”

Among those trialling Recruit Smarter is Australian banking giant, Westpac. The bank’s Head of Diversity, Samantha Turner, said Westpac had set targets of equal leadership roles for men and women and all GMs are required to identify a female successor.

Interestingly, Turner said using the blind CV method did not sufficiently address the gender and racial diversity of candidates making it to the interview stage and is now pushing for all cultural references to be removed from CVs, including where a candidate attended university.

Queensland avoids the over-simplified fix

Rob Setter, CEO of Queensland’s Public Service Commission, said while programs should be developed to mitigate against unconscious bias during recruitment, he does not believe processes of blind recruitment were sufficient to address unconscious bias in the workplace.

He added it was imperative not to adopt a “sheep dip process” where there was an attempt to adopt one solution to a multi-faceted issue, across a diverse range of sectors and organisations.

Instead, Setter advocates strongly for measures such as more diverse interview panels, robust selection processes and equity targets should be introduced.

The Queensland government has also committed to moving away from a full-time/part-time job paradigm to improve employment access for different sectors of the community.

“We are doing a lot of work around talent pool identification for succession planning purposes,” Setter said. “This includes identifying methods that are more objective and exclude any element of unconscious bias.”

Given the contradictory information on unconscious bias, most people would be forgiven for being confused.

That said it is important to bear in mind that each study on unconscious bias looks at specific areas or recruitment hiring and longer-term employment. This accounts for some of the contradictory information we are receiving.

In the case of the BETA study, participants were aware they were taking part in a study and that the candidates and position they were applying for were fictional. It would be reasonable to assume this has an impact on the outcome.

What most people in the recruitment space can agree upon is that there is a need for us to be open-minded about new studies and information which can help us to do our job more efficiently and fairly.

It is also fair to say that while the issue of unconscious bias is a relatively new one for recruitment, it is not going anywhere, anytime soon.

Given the important nature of this topic, I have written a research paper on unconscious bias. Click here to view the latest report, findings and case studies.

David Reynolds, Group Manager — Client Development, Davidson Executive & Boards.

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