Unconscious bias – A deflection on the route to diversity?

Catherine Dibble, Senior Delivery Consultant at Miramar Global, examines whether the concept of unconscious bias can deflect us from more proactive efforts in the fight for diversity in hiring decisions.

It’s naturally a time for some introspection and given that our time away from work has recently become quite restricted, I’ve reflected on a comment, made a few weeks ago, underneath an apparently uncontroversial post from our US office which had highlighted methods to reduce unconscious bias in recruitment decision making: “Lol at unconscious bias – word salad for racism”. While I am relaxed that unconscious bias is an accepted phenomenon cited by diversity professionals and social psychologists, the comment has stayed with me. I have been reflecting on this, concerned that something that is now so core to best practice in recruitment and intended to drive the very opposite of racism and prejudice, would illicit such a response. Could businesses be inadvertently embedding prejudice into recruitment when trying to do the precise opposite?

A search of Institute of Race Relations articles suggests this exact concern. Jenny Bourne in her January 2019 article “Unravelling the Concept of Unconscious bias” argues that identifying that unconscious bias happens and developing strategies to mitigate against it, is not, in itself, wrong, but it risks deflecting responsibility from individuals and organisations who need to take responsibility for their own flawed decision making and for processes which embed inequality. Whilst I agree that the word unconscious could, in some circumstances, be used as cover for something more sinister, in the context of executive search we need to be clear that our commitment is to deliver talent that is representative of its market.

As recruiters, our conscious desire to be decent and meritocratic leads us to name blind long lists and CVs to mitigate unconscious unfairness but the nature of searching within a discreet talent pool, perpetuates the characteristics of that population. Ultimately, as recruiters, our job is to ensure our shortlists are representative of the relevant target population. The realities of racial, gender and class privilege are multi layered and complex and will not be solved by shortlist quotas or name blinding CVs. In fact, these processes could be seen as looking the wrong way through the lens. That said, it is pleasing when our clients ask us to do more and, at Miramar we do seek to provide shortlists that are more diverse than would be representative of the market. As recruiters, we should always think “what else?”. Factors such as criteria flexibility for diverse profiles, the potential for succession hiring of diverse candidates and the possible inclusion of ability testing, which can be considered a stronger success indicator than past experience and education, are all important discussion points and can help to improve diversity, in even the most challenging markets.

In conclusion, mitigation for unconscious bias can only be part of an overall recruitment diversity strategy. Our starting point must always be our client’s target market and our requirement to achieve, at minimum, a representative talent pipeline. Once we have achieved this, we work against unconscious bias to ensure the selection and interview stages are also entirely fair and meritocratic.


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