Are appointments doomed to bias?

Lack of self-reflection and denial of even the possibility of bias make it even more likely to occur

A multinational business, headquartered in the US, introduced a policy a few years ago that was designed to increase the level of diversity in its senior ranks. When appointing a leadership role the shortlist of candidates had to include at least two women and one person who was visibly from an ethnic minority background.

This is known as an ‘identity-conscious’ approach and is typically employed when organisations have established diversity targets, the idea being that decision-makers will ensure female and minority candidates are given proper consideration.

In this particular organisation, however, there was no significant increase in the number of women or ethnic minority candidates being appointed to senior roles. Instead decision-makers appeared to comply with the policy by having a diverse slate of candidates, but ultimately selected white men when the final decision was made.

In effect compliance with the policy had become nothing more than a box-ticking exercise. I was told by decision-makers in the company that on reviewing the shortlist they would regularly say: 'oh no, we need to put a minority on the list'. They knew from the start, however, that the person was never going to be appointed.

Such policies are widely disliked by managers, a common complaint being that they lead to a reduction in the quality of the people appointed for the sake of meeting a diversity quota. However, when it comes to gender, generally speaking standards are lowered to allow the appointment of men.

Stereotypically men are viewed as being egocentric. They are task-focused, assertive, confident and dominant. Women, on the other hand, are stereotypically seen as being more communal, warm, empathetic and caring.

To be considered for leadership roles in organisations women need to display qualities that go against stereotypes. However, in doing so they risk being seen as difficult to work with and becoming unpopular with their male colleagues.

In many modern organisations there is an emphasis on having more women in the talent pipeline, which is a good thing. However, this is the equivalent of being placed on the shortlist, and when the actual decisions are made it is still men who are more likely to be forwarded. This has been observed even in settings where women are in the majority; such is the extent of the unconscious perception of leadership among both men and women.

The ‘identity-conscious’ approach is in contrast to ‘colour-blind’ methods of appointment. Here those responsible for making an appointment will genuinely believe that they are totally fair and objective in their decisions. You will often hear these individuals say: 'It makes no difference to me whether someone is male, female, black, white, or green with purple spots.' The statement is both reassuring and deluding. These things do matter, and ironically people who believe they are not biased have been shown to make the most heavily biased decisions. The lack of self-reflection and the denial of even the possibility of bias makes it even more likely to occur.

Identity-conscious approaches, therefore, appear to provide an easy, if disliked, solution to an organisation’s lack of diversity. However, such policies miss the point altogether. What I would recommend organisations strive to do instead is improve the knowledge and skills of those involved in the selection process.

Research shows that interviewers who understand how bias occurs in the selection process, and that biases operate differently for different groups, make fairer and much more accurate assessments of candidates than untrained ones.

Finally, one of the most powerful ways to improve the accuracy of decision-making and to achieve greater diversity is to make those involved in the selection process more accountable for the decisions they make. Asking them to justify their appointments improves diversity without having to adopt identity-conscious policies.

Binna Kandola is co-founder of and senior partner at Pearn Kandola