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September 2021 | Recruitment

Being biased is natural

Pete Gwilliam is director of Virtus Search

Inclusive leadership is a process of bridge-building. As an organisation develops more managerial levels, it necessitates ensuring that senior management and middle management listen, learn and benefit from people with different perspectives.

The process of finding common ground is founded on mutual respect and consistently evidencing trustworthy behaviours, and ultimately by realising that – however well-intentioned – we will have unconscious biases which can create exclusion.

We all need to consider how unconscious bias affects who we invite to meetings, who we speak with more easily, and whose opinions influence our decisions. Unconscious bias makes us believe we are making decisions about an individual’s capabilities, professionalism, or ability to contribute based on rational details, when in reality, these are skewed by our personal preferences.

Most biased stereotypes do not come from a place of bad intent. It’s just a deep-seated, unconscious stereotype that’s been formed in our brains through years of different influences we often had no control over. To harness the full energy, enthusiasm, and potential of all in a diverse workforce, it is essential for leaders and teams to be alert to the disenfranchising nature of unconscious bias, and to recommit to the basic principles of listening, bridge-building, and creating common ground.

Of course, you cannot create a solution that works for many while only considering the voices of a few, but conversely, the value of creating a more diverse workforce is to shape more inclusive practices and perspectives – that requires a safe and open environment.

To educate yourself, you must prepare to be vulnerable and recognise that you are likely to have exhibited some underlying biases previously.

I find that there can be defensiveness when discussing race and gender privilege and the concept of everyone having an equal chance with a white male, because I suspect it implies you’ve had things easier, even if things have been difficult for you personally, and moreover, that you are maybe not quite as equitable as you always believed yourself to be, which can feel a bit awkward to realise.

Privilege and equality are nuanced and intricate subjects, and there’s a good chance that your hiring process isn’t as inclusive as you think. Even if appealing to a certain under-represented group, it may in fact not intersect with another group.

There’s no doubt that you can discourage certain segments of the population from applying simply through the words that you’re using or the unnecessary criteria you’re asking to be met, which can greatly advantage some while disadvantaging others.

Neuroscience research has demonstrated that human beings are hardwired to prefer those who resemble us or have similar features and backgrounds. Therefore, companies need to start by understanding that unconscious bias in the workplace is normal, and be critically aware of how this bias influences our decisions and impacts others.

Whether we’re aware of it or not, bias affects who we select to come in for an interview, how we interview them, who we hire, and our reasons for hiring them.

So, how do you keep from falling prey to the dangers of unconscious bias? The first step is simple: make the unconscious, conscious.

A good place to test the inclusiveness of your business is to ask whether you have employees who do not have the same access to key stakeholders, or are not consistently engaged in strategic projects and workflows within the firm.

Also consider how previous internal job openings have been handled, which individuals were encouraged and actively sponsored to apply, and in particular, what the make-up of the decision-making panel was.

The most progressive organisations ensure that feedback is constructive, and importantly, they action plan mentoring and coaching to improve thereafter, in particular for those from under-represented backgrounds.

Factors like how or where we’ve been brought up, our exposure to other social identities and social groups, who our friends are or were, as well as media influences, all affect how we think and feel about certain types of people.

We must all agree that these should not be influencing who has doors opened and who has them closed.