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We are all biased.

I’m biased, so you are you, and so is everyone around us.  Bias is normal and natural – and the reason we are all carrying bias around with us is because we were designed to. We were born with the genetic hardwiring to make instant – and totally subconscious and involuntary – judgements about whether people we meet for the first time fall into our ‘in group’ or our ‘out group’. This mental hardwiring resides in one of the most ancient parts of our brains, because the ability to make immediate ‘friend or foe? judgements was essential in keeping our ancestors alive, and the human race in existence.   

The World Has Moved On – But Our Brains Haven’t

Fast forward a few millennia and happily we find ourselves now living in far more civilised times. Our survival no longer depends on our ability to make instantaneous ‘my tribe or not?’ assessments about the new people we meet.  However our physiological hardwiring hasn’t fully moved with the times. We’re still living with the same innate, and sometimes very powerful, unconscious tendency to prefer people with whom we feel a natural “affinity”.  These are the “people like us” – the people we’re likely to feel more comfortable and relaxed with. Look around your own network of close friends – while perhaps more diverse than it might have been if you’d been living in a Victorian society, chances are it comprises a high proportion of people demographically similar to you.  

Our Unconscious Assumptions Can Be Deeply Flawed

It doesn’t take a huge analytical leap to realise that this natural human tendency to gravitate towards “people like us” isn’t always going to lead to transparent and accurate evaluations about people.  Especially when it comes to recruiting them into your business.  The big problem is that our subconscious, while very quick at processing information (e.g. good hair, tie, shoes, accent) can be profoundly wide off the mark when it comes to assuming other attributes on the basis of such very limited data (e.g. good sense of humour, likes beer and rugby, good with customers, perfect fit for my team).  How often, when interviewing for a job, have you shaken the hand of a candidate on first meeting them and taken to them immediately, just knowing within moments that they will be perfect for the job and for the team? Chances are this has nothing to do with your penetrating ability to spot talent in a millisecond – and much more to do with your ability to gravitate towards someone who reminds you – unconsciously, remember – of someone else who you like, or perhaps reminds you a bit of yourself.

Studies Into Bias Repeatedly Show The Same Thing

A lot of research has been done in this area and the findings are fascinating.  A famous study in 1999 by Steinpres et al  found that recruiters showed a preference for male applicants, when in reality they had all been sent exactly the same CV, with half being sent a CV apparently from  an applicant with a traditionally ‘male’ name and half from an applicant with a traditionally ‘female’ name.  The recruiters reported the male applicants as better qualified and more likely to be offered a job.  Similar studies have found even more dramatic preferences for job applicants with traditionally British-sounding names, over applicants with names that do not sound traditionally British; and yet further studies have found recruiter preferences for younger candidates over older ones.

Hiring In Your Own Mould Can Be Very Bad For Business

As you might realise, far from being a good thing, there are actually significant risks in populating your business or your team with people who are very similar to you.  Generally speaking, the more diversity is represented at more levels in an organisation, the better, and time and again the research findings bear this out.  Diverse teams have repeatedly been shown to make better decisions, learn more between them, be better at problem solving and perform more effectively than homogenous teams (where team members are all very similar to each other).  This subject often makes me think about all those senior boards of white, male, middle aged, public schooled and university educated investment bankers 10 years ago. Perhaps if those teams had been a little more diverse in their make-up, they wouldn’t have indulged in so much of the dangerously homogenous decision making that sent the country off to a financial hell in a handbasket..

What Exactly Do We Mean By A Diverse Team?  

Well it could be one of any number things.  A truly diverse team is a team which realistically reflects the company’s community and / or its customer base – in other words, a team that is equivalently diverse in terms of gender, race, age, sexuality, and religion, for example.  At the very least, it is a team that can point to having been selected from the broadest and deepest possible pool of talent, rather than a narrow stream of virtually identical candidates.

So What Can You Do?

Just simply being aware of bias and its potentially sabotaging effects is a good start: understanding that our natural tendency to be around people we can comfortably relate to doesn’t always result in the most accurate hiring decisions. Dr Helen Turnbull, an expert in unconscious bias, says that while we may never totally rid ourselves of bias, “we need to feel affinity for more people of difference” and “pay attention to our reactions” when “interacting across differences”.

I end with a quote from Dee Hock, the brilliant and visionary founder of Visa: “Never hire or promote in your own image. It is foolish to replicate your strength. It is idiotic to replicate your weakness.  It is essential to employ, trust, and reward those whose perspective, ability, and judgment are radically different from yours. It is also rare, for it requires uncommon humility, tolerance, and wisdom.”

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