Unconscious bias in the workplace – a hidden source of unfairness in job interviews

April 14, 20169:31 am1247 views
Unconscious bias in the workplace – a hidden source of unfairness in job interviews
Blind auditions for orchestras helped address gender discrimination. Photo: Rob Homer

Once they realised men were being favoured over women, leading symphony orchestras started auditioning musicians behind a screen.

A simple curtain doubled the talent pool and transformed what orchestras look like, says Iris Bohnet, a professor of public policy at Harvard University.

A  behavioural economist at the Kennedy School of Government, Professor Bohnet says it was not so long ago that orchestra directors and selection committees were “quite comfortable with all-male, all-white orchestras and likely not aware of their biases”.

GHD's Mia Barnard.GHD’s Mia Barnard. Photo: Jessica Hromas

“To change this, no great technical feat was required, just awareness, a curtain, and a decision,” she says.

“Benefiting from 100 per cent talent is good business for orchestras and just about every other organisation.”

Take off tick boxes

In her new book, What Works: Gender Equality By Design, Bohnet identifies ways to address unconscious bias in the workplace.

Phil Duthie, General Manager at GHD in Australia

Phil Duthie, General Manager at GHD in AustraliaPhoto: supplied

The initiatives include eliminating stereotypes from tests that ask people to check off boxes indicating their sex or race.

Hanging portraits of past male leaders of an organisation can also contribute to sending the wrong message – that advancement is only possible for men.

Professor Bohnet says that “blind or comparative evaluation procedures help us hire the best instead of those who look the part and role models shape what people think is possible”.

Blind CVs

Mia Barnard, who works in the Sydney office of engineering, architecture, environmental consulting and construction services firm GHD, said it was actively addressing unconscious bias in the workplace by blocking the names and ages of job candidates from CVs.

She said the company has identified rates of appointment and promotion to boost women’s participation across its male-dominated workforce.

Professor Bohnet says that chemistry between a job candidate and their future employer can influence the outcome of a job interview.

“We cannot help but be influenced by irrelevant details – a shared joy of celebrity stalking, the colour of an application letter, or a person’s appearance. Maybe an applicant’s jacket is your favourite shade of blue,” she says.

“While this fact is unlikely to be relevant for the job he or she is applying for, after having seen a colour you like, you will be more favourably disposed toward that applicant.”

Beauty is honesty?

This unconscious bias can prevent an employer from assessing any new information about the job candidate objectively.

Wider research has also suggested that attractive people are often assumed to be more honest and responsible and more intelligent.

While having applicants audition behind a curtin may work for orchestras, it is not going to work for many other organisations.

“But at a minimum, countries, including much of Europe and Israel, that still encourage applicants to include headshots with their resumes are well advised to stop,” Professor Bohnet says.

Organisations should remove identifying information from job applications and compare responses of candidates to the same set of questions to help guard against bias.

Language barrier

Gendered language should be purged from job advertisements and the application process should be transparent.

Phil Duthie, general manager at GHD, said the company was raising awareness of unconscious bias and the role it can play in decision-making by delivering training to its managers across Australia.

“We are conducting a trial of removing names and other gender identifiers from CVs before our hiring managers review them,” he said.

“However, the issue is more complex than this and unconscious bias can have an impact in the way a role is developed and advertised.

“We’re seeing more people with flexible working and part-time contracts applying for management and other key positions, which is fantastic.”

news source: theage.com.au/business/workplace-relations/unconscious-bias-in-the-workplace–a-hidden-source-of-unfairness-in-job-interviews-20160413-go5bo2#ixzz45lBqjItE

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