Unconscious bias and hiring for ‘culture fit’: are you unknowingly impacting diversity and inclusion in your workplace?

Kevin Hosier

Unconscious bias can influence decisions in recruitment, promotion and performance management. It could also be discriminatory when the unconscious bias relates to a protected characteristic. And yet – it is a natural human trait and is usually unintended. Often, the first step in addressing it is recognising that it is likely to be present in your processes, whether or not it appears to be.

GCN Talent caught up with Neil Morrison, HR Director at Severn Trent Water and formerly Director of Strategy, Culture and Innovation at Penguin Random House to talk about his thoughts and experience of identifying and mitigating unconscious bias in the workplace.


⯈ How do you define unconscious bias in the hiring process, and why do you believe it happens?

Unconscious bias is primarily about identity – we look for people ‘like us.’ Organisational culture can reinforce this. We need to recognise that this instinct to hire ‘in our own image’ is not always bad; it does help us to make decisions in the face of incomplete data, and it has helped us survive as a species. But from the outset, we need to understand that the person we feel we might best like to work with is not necessarily going to be the best person for the job. We must then take the necessary steps to overcome this inherent bias in our hiring process.


How can unconscious bias in the hiring process impact a business – and what is the evidence for this?

At Penguin Random House, we did a lot to try to increase diversity within our teams and saw positive impacts across the business, in both a qualitative and quantitative respect. We saw better commercial decisions and inferred a correlation between this and the introduction of a range of different voices into our teams. There appeared to be less conformity of opinion, and discussions tended to be more robust. While it might be hard to definitively prove a causal link between increased diversity and better commercial decision making, the improvements were such that it seemed likely to be underpinned by this.


⯈ “We didn’t think the candidate was the right ‘cultural fit’ for our business.” This is one of the most common reasons we are given for rejecting a candidate.
If you hear this, do you challenge your hiring managers as to EXACTLY what they mean? If so, what sort of responses do you get?

Rejection on the general grounds of ‘cultural fit’ tends to be shorthand or a lazy catch-all term for something else, and it is crucial to understand what is meant by this.

Firstly, we must understand that it can be for valid reasons. For example, if a candidate is used to a process-driven environment and we’re seeking to put them into a business culture that isn’t, we can argue that this would not be a great ‘cultural fit’ for either the candidate or the business. However, the flip-side of ‘cultural fit’ tends to revolve around personal characteristics or perceived behaviours that are not relevant to the candidate’s ability to perform the job function.

If a candidate doesn’t dress like us, doesn’t read the same newspapers as us, or didn’t go to the same ‘type’ of university or college, we should not infer that this means they will not be able to perform the job function or that they will not be ‘accepted’ by the existing team. We should not be basing hiring decisions on this type of information.

⯈ We know of companies that include, subsequent to the final ‘official’ interview, some sort of social interaction between the candidate and the team they would be working with.
If we assume that by reaching this stage, the candidate is deemed to have the necessary skills and experience to do the job, is there EVER a case for rejecting a candidate following this?

There’s nothing wrong with asking your candidates to meet with as wide a selection of your organisation’s people as possible during the hiring process, and this includes potential future peers and direct reports. You can often gain insight from more informal conversations that you perhaps wouldn’t achieve in a more formal, structured interview. For example, you can learn a lot by observing how your candidate interacts with more junior staff.

However, if you are putting your candidate into a social situation, you need to ask yourself what you are planning to assess in this type of environment and whether this relates in any way to the candidate’s ability to perform the job role. It should really only be used to inform generally once the hiring decision has been made. For instance, it may help you to understand how best to integrate your candidate with the team.


⯈ Do you continue to see evidence of unconscious bias affecting employees’ prospects in the workplace in terms of the availability of truly equal opportunities?

Yes – unfortunately, unconscious bias is present in workplace decisions.

For example, it is evident in organisations that have leadership programmes. The more stereotypically ‘male’ personality traits tend to be valued more highly when assessing candidates as potential leaders (and white, middle-class male traits at that), whether this is unconsciously or probably, in some cases, consciously.

Unquestionably, this is what can and does hold back female and BAME candidates in the workplace. And as a result, we tend to end up with leaders with the same set of personality traits, rather than embracing the diverse and the different – and giving ourselves the opportunity to see where they would take us.

At Severn Trent, we are very gender-diverse at all levels but have recognised that we are less ethnically diverse. We have found that by simply highlighting the issue and raising consciousness of it, different decisions are starting to be made, both in the hiring process and in the workplace itself. We are seeing diversity increase as a result.


⯈ What can managers do to mitigate against unconscious bias in their hiring process and workplaces? Can it be genuinely eradicated?

The hiring process is by its very nature subjective, and we need to ensure we try to make it as objective as possible. Bias cannot be truly eradicated, but we can take steps to shift the balance as far as possible towards objectivity:

•  Take time in the hiring process. The more pressure we’re under to get the hire over the line, the more our unconscious takes over – and therefore, the more we’re influenced by bias in our decision making.

•  Be more structured in your approach. Take each candidate through exactly the same process and ask them exactly the same questions. You are more likely to be able to evaluate the evidence properly in this way.

•  Break up the assessment of candidates to different groups of people – this will help increase objectivity.

•  Eliminate all questions that aren’t related to the candidate’s suitability for the job. No questions such as: “If you were a biscuit, what would you be and why?”

•  Don’t over-rely on tests or data – this only gives you part of the story.

As an example of eliminating inbuilt bias – at Severn Trent, for our graduate hiring programme, we use blind CVs. These have degree achievements and universities attended taken off. Unless a qualification is specifically vocational, we see zero correlation between the actual degree studied/grade achieved and the ability to perform in a particular job role.

This has raised eyebrows and occasionally angered applicants – but we haven’t seen any data which demonstrates that higher academic achievement or type of university attended impacts workplace ability, either positively or negatively. If you really believe that our education system is a meritocracy and that the best will always rise to the top, then go ahead and take this data into account. I’d argue that by leaning it on, you’re already building in bias.


Interview conducted by Kevin Hosier, Co-Director of GCN Talent

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