Guest Post: Unconscious Bias and Recruitment

Published on: Wed 19 February 2014 by Admin

Pennies Dropping

I have spent quite a bit of time over the last few weeks reflecting on a fantastic book called ‘The Loudest Duck’ read my review. This is a clear indication that there is not much on TV, all my mates are away on holiday and that it is one of those books that contain the kind of pennies of wisdom that drop not just during reading but after.

Unconscious Bias

The premise of the book is that we all bring layers of complex biases and assumptions to work, most of which are unconscious, and many of which come from our upbringing and cultural norms – in the UK the ‘squeaky gate gets the oil’ but in China ‘the loudest duck gets shot’. These biases and those of recruiters, managers and appraisers can determine our success at work.

Recruitment Torture

My reflections have been largely focused on a recruitment process I once went through for a local council who had best remain anonymous just in case they ever decided to hire me as a consultant.

The process involved 14 (that is not a typo – fourteen) different activities as follows;

  1. An application form
  2. A numerical reasoning online test
  3. A verbal reasoning online test
  4. A personality test
  5. An in-tray exercise
  6. A presentation preparing task
  7. A written briefing task
  8. An oral briefing task
  9. A preliminary interview
  10. A meet the members / officers gathering
  11. A secondary interview
  12. A team briefing
  13. A reflections on the process task
  14. References

And the outcome………..?

After what was undoubtedly the most thorough assessment of my skills, competencies and experience and getting down to the last 2 candidates, the council decided not to appoint.

And the reason for not appointing me (or the other candidate) despite performing at or above the standard needed for every area of the person specification and job description was (in summary) …………………..’fit’. The panel concluded that my personality (more quietly confident than extrovert) meant I wasn’t suited to the role and to working with the CEO.

Confirmation Bias

Recruitment is a difficult thing to get right. In essence we are trying to assess past achievements in order to predict future performance. At the point that the panel asked for my references I was quietly confident that I was home and dry as I knew that those who had witnessed my past performance would inspire confidence in my future work.

I had forgotten about confirmation bias.

The Loudest Duck explains that we all assign much more weight to evidence which confirms firmly held existing and unconscious biases. Those who believe, for example, that successful leaders should be loud and authoritarian may not notice the unassuming team leader who successfully motivates their team but instead pay a great deal of attention to someone who leads in the way that they do.

So despite performing well through the process and receiving glowing references the panel focused on a nervous second interview and my clarifying details at each stage of the process of evidence that I was not suited to the role.

My biases

I am well aware that it is easy to feel (and sound?) bitter when unsuccessful during a recruitment process and to paint the once preferred new employer in a bad light. That’s not my intention. I hope that these reflections are fair and balanced after all I cannot question that the panel were thorough! Looking back I am just genuinely intrigued that unconscious biases occur in action. I try hard to learn something from every challenging situation I encounter.

The panel may well have been right about fit – or my lack of it – after all I was once given feedback on a leadership development programme that I am a tempered radical.  In fact the process also confirmed one of my own biases against some organisational norms i.e. that in our search for the innovation and creativity that diversity promises to bring – recruiting for fit can be counter-productive!