One of my graduate school mentors, Herb Meyer, was the head of personnel research at General Electric company in the 1960s before becoming a professor. Herb told the story about attending a meeting of GE recruiters who visited college campuses to hire engineers. He began the meeting by asking them if they thought being tall was a requirement for being a successful engineer. They laughed and said that it was a dumb idea. He then asked that if the idea was dumb, why they were hiring based on height. The recruiters had an unconscious bias against short engineers and were screening them out without realizing it. Herb discovered the bias and took steps to overcome it, but this is too often not the case in organizations where highly talented applicants are passed over for hiring or promotion based on irrelevant characteristics. This is how unconscious bias can destroy recruitment efforts.
What Is Unconscious Bias?
We all have unconscious biases that affect our judgments. Many of the judgments that we make are based more on gut feelings than careful weighing of evidence. We might interview three people for a position and hire the one who strikes us as best suited for the job. Judgments that are based on our subjective feelings are subject to internal biases, either for or against certain characteristics like height. They are unconscious bias when we are unaware of them.
When we make hiring and other human resource decisions based on our gut feelings, we are focused on how well each candidate conforms to our prior experiences about what good employees are like. We have in our minds an ideal employee, and we are matching each candidate to that ideal. This is done automatically, and we are not always aware of the specific characteristics that drive our judgments. We only know that a given person “feels” like the right one. This was the case that Herb Meyer encountered with the hiring of tall engineers.
Unconscious Bias Can Destroy Recruitment
There are three ways in which unconscious bias can destroy recruitment efforts.
- Hiring the Wrong People: If the ideal upon which hiring is based is incorrect, the people hired will not be well suited for the job. Suppose, for example, that a hiring manager has an unconscious bias against people with college degrees. He or she would avoid hiring college graduates. If education is important for job performance, using education to screen out applicants would result in hiring too many people who would be unable to perform the job well.
- Throwing away Great Applicants: The goal in hiring and promotion should be to identify the best candidates. Limiting the pool to only those who fit the ideal will unnecessarily limit the pool, and risks throwing away the best applicants. Even if those hired are successful, avoiding the bias could make for an even more talented workforce.
- Reducing Diversity. Sometimes unconscious biases have implications for diversity, both directly and indirectly. A direct bias occurs when a decision-maker has an unconscious bias for or against certain demographic groups. Gender, for example, might be part of a decision-maker’s ideal, and thus those seen as the best match might be men or conversely, might be women. Indirect bias is not for or against a demographic group itself, but involves a characteristic that relates to being a member of a demographic group. In Meyer’s GE, height was part of the recruiters’ ideal, which would have put female engineers at a disadvantage, not because they were females, but because women on average are shorter than men on average. If they were hiring mainly engineers who were at least six feet tall, they would have hired a disproportionate number of men, and missed hiring talented women based on the irrelevant characteristic of height.
How to Overcome Unconscious Bias
The best way to overcome unconscious bias is to incorporate evidence-based methods that avoid making decisions based on gut feelings. Rather than looking for the person who seems to be the best fit to the job, use methods that allow for the matching of job requirements to people’s talents. A focus on matching the person to the job is a better strategy for identifying talent and increasing diversity.
Begin by identifying the KSAOs (Knowledge, Skill, Ability and Other characteristics) for the job in question. This means conducting a job analysis to determine the talents needed for a job: What should a person know, what tasks do they have the skill to accomplish, do they have the ability to develop on the job, and do they have the right attitudes, motivation, personality, and values? Once you know the KSAOs needed, you can devise ways of assessing them in job applicants. This can be determined with assessments (e.g., skill tests such as typing), and an analysis of applicant background education and experiences. Applicants should be screened on job-relevant KSAOs to determine who is most suited for the job.
A second way to reduce unconscious bias is to have more than one person make the decision. An open discussion of the candidates and why one should be preferred over the other can help decision makers recognize their blind spots. Of course, just having multiple decision makers won’t be helpful if everyone has the same biases. A solution is to have decision-makers who are likely to have different points-of-view. This might be accomplished by ensuring that the decision-making group is diverse in gender, race, and background.
Unconscious bias is a natural part of how people analyze situations, which enables us to make quick decisions under pressure. There are times when going with your gut is a good approach. Deciding who to hire or promote is not one of them. Recruitment decisions require a more evidence-based approach to identify the best talent. Awareness of the existence of unconscious bias is the first step, but awareness alone is not sufficient. To avoid the detrimental effects of unconscious bias requires the use of analytical tools that match job-relevant KSAOs of applicants to job requirements. This approach would enable organizations to recruit the most talented workforce.
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