Unconscious Bias: Please Don’t Judge Me on My Stature!

Published on: Wed 18 September 2013 by Admin

I once chaired an interview panel for hospital consultants. As the sole non physician around the table, part of my role was to ensure fairness. We were going over the CV of the next interviewee before the candidate was invited into the room.

‘Oh, he sails. Excellent, we need another member for our sailing club’ said a voice to my right. I rolled my eyes, assuming I was being wound up because they knew of my equalities background. As it became clear that it was no joke, I had to reel my colleagues in from making a choice that was solely down to recreational skills being the ‘fit’.

The ‘Fit’. Few people will disagree that fit has its place. It’s interesting what role unconscious bias has on a fit. As a rule, bias is neutral. It’s when we apply our assumptions on it that it changes into either a positive or negative one.

  • What influences you when you evaluate and interview prospective candidates?
  • How does the accent of a colleague or prospective colleague impact your assessment of them?
  • When you look at a CV or application form, what are the things that may impact the way you assess it?
  • Is the name a factor?
  • How clear are you about the factors that influence your choices?

In spite of first, equal opportunities, then diversity and inclusion policies, training and initiatives, the gender, race, age and other landscapes of most organisations hasn’t changed. If it had, Lord Young’s recommendations on female boardroom representation might not be so hotly debated. This is why most companies and public sector organisations are now looking at unconscious bias training.

One of the best ways to mitigate unconscious bias for individuals is to ease up and reflect on our decision process drivers. Easier written than done?

Even those who think they should know better can get it wrong. On another interview, the job description called for a clinical manager to oversee a strong team of mainly male oncologists with accompanying egos to boot. A candidate sat in front of me, female, petite, with a hijab or shawl who out of respect (I guess) did not look at me in the eye. She was eminently clinically qualified but I feared for her managerial skills in this hot bed of testosterone. My colleagues were more impressed than me and she got the job. Six months later, I made it a point to check on her progress and it was outstanding in all parameters. Who had the problem?

Me, my unconscious bias not seeing past the smallness of stature, or seeing the steely glint in her eyes, the shawl. Hindsight made me glad I was wrong.