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Discovering your own unconscious bias
Sep 20, 2013

Discovering your own unconscious bias

This post was first published by Diversity Partners here

Good managers have a bias for action.

Tom Peters

Some time ago, an HR manager told me an incredible story about how she discovered her own unconscious bias, through an ‘aha’ moment.

A few years before, she had been recruiting for a very senior legal role that needed to be filled urgently. One of the criteria was the ability to communicate clearly and quickly with clients in relation to a very complex transaction. When the time came to review the CVs, she was disappointed to discover that, out of 40 CVs, there were only two candidates she felt were worth interviewing.

So she decided to go through them all again in case she missed something. And she had.

She suddenly saw that she had rejected every CV where the applicant’s name suggested Asian ethnicity. In her words, she was very shocked. She told me, firmly, that she was not one of those people who says ‘I’m not racist, but…’. However, something was clearly going on for this to happen without her realising.

Was it the communication issue that caused her to make assumptions and reject so many applicants? The firm already had many lawyers of Asian ethnicity. Many of her friends and acquaintances were of Asian ethnicity. Some had been born in Australia; some had not. None of these people had any difficulties with communication.

She asked one of her staff members to give her a summary of all of the CVs without the CVs attached, removing any reference to age, gender and also removing names. She ended up with a shortlist of 10 people rather than two, basing selection purely on candidates’ experience on paper.

Afterwards, she reflected on the experience and remembered that, many years before, she had been lecturing and tutoring at a university where there was a very high proportion of Asian law students in the classes. Probably half of the students were full fee paying students from overseas who struggled to understand the concepts in English and effectively answer questions on exam papers. She realised then she had allowed this experience from many years before to create a bias in relation to the communication skills of people applying for jobs all those years later.

So the lesson for her (and me, after hearing her story)? From that day on, she never looked at a CV with a name or date of birth on it when she needed to shortlist. She always had a staff member review the CVs and give her a summary with those identifying features removed. This also ensured there was no gender or age bias in any of her recruitment decisions. It also enabled her to go to partners with potential candidates based purely on experience, and she is absolutely confident that they interviewed more and better candidates because of it.

So what has been your ‘aha’ moment? If you haven’t had one, the time will and should come. Your willingness to examine your own possible unconscious bias is a very important step in understanding the concept of unconscious bias and its effect on your organisation.