Equality: Unconscious bias and the mini-me syndrome

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Mini-me syndrome is a social phenomena where executives and others in the recruitment process choose employees and successors who are similar to themselves - often in age, style, industry experience and importantly, gender and race. Habitually, these leaders adopt an attitude of 'it's worked well up until now, so why change course?'

Research by Gordon Allport The Nature of Prejudice (1954) has shown that there is an unconscious instinct for us all to favour those who remind us of ourselves. But in a corporate context, the tendency for leaders to recruit mini-me’s in their own image can prove a risk.  If the goal is to have a talent pool of potential future global leaders, there should be a commitment to recruiting a diverse talent pool which will encourage a mix of styles, capabilities and approaches that can help ensure that the organisation is capable of success in a global international market. 

Often, they are not even aware of their subconscious filtering of candidates. This is of concern for any organisation where the majority of leadership positions are held by males. In order to sustain competitive advantage, it is essential to offer the right balance of strategic thinking, problem solving and visioning both internally and externally.

Beyond’s recent Unconscious Bias survey results reveal one in three believe consciously or unconsciously that a woman’s place is at home and not work. More than two thirds (67%) of those surveyed have a low or no bias at all. At first glance this appears to be good news. On close scrutiny a quarter of this group when placed under pressure emotionally or cognitively and their biases too will surface. The same applies to the 26% with a moderate bias.

But what does unconscious bias look like? Billions of pounds go to the UK’s recruitment agencies every year, and because of that, recruitment consultants are diversity gatekeepers. Some of the better recruitment consultancies (although not that many, truth be told) will have a genuine commitment to helping their clients improve diversity, and will have provided worthwhile diversity training and guidelines. Their consultants should hopefully be positioned to avoid willful discrimination.

But these recruiters will still fall prey to one of the simplest forms of unconscious bias – a negative assessment of non-standard CVs and career paths.

It’s easy to discount a CV that isn’t set out in a normal way, or describes a career path that doesn’t adhere to the normal move up through the corporate wheel. Unfortunately, the standard CV / career path is set at the norm for the majority – good school, good university, good corporate experience (i.e easy to place with clients). CVs from female often don’t look like that, because often they have taken a career break to start a family or want to work part-time. They’re used to assessing candidates against the "normal" framework of what looks good, and they churn the handle and come up with "the usual suspects".

If female candidates do happen to make it through the process and are presented to the client, the same unconscious bias will be reapplied by the next group of people who review the CVs. And unconscious bias will also play a part in the way the recruitment consultant actually briefs the different candidates for the role prior to meeting the clients, if they get through the sift. That’s unconscious bias, and it has an impact on the process.

Bias awareness is a step in the right direction to make visible and measurable difference. Behaviour and attitudes need to be challenged and changed. The following are five crucial initiatives which can make a difference to reducing the bias in recruitment;

  • Work and partner with executive search and selection organisations that specialise in offering a pool of talented and diverse candidates. Note talent first, diversity second. This isn’t about token gestures or quota filling.
  • Address stereotypes that women and minority employees 'lack the necessary skills'.
  • Build company-wide cultural awareness of the subconscious stereotypes that exist in recruitment and succession planning.
  • Build leadership capability so your leaders have the skills to engage in more effective conversations with all individuals.
  • Promote a company culture of an inclusive and collaborative leadership style.

Salma Sha is founder and director of Beyond which specialises in executive search and selection, inclusive leadership, integrating the gender and cross-cultural dimension into coaching and developing excellence in teams.

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