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Can executive search tackle unconscious bias?

by Janet Musgrave on 18 Feb 2019
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A highly engaged top team with a diverse set of backgrounds and perspectives makes a company more dynamic, creative, and innovative. But if you only ever look for the same type of candidate, how are you ever going to get anyone different to what you have already got? It's not just about relevant industry experience either, it's about everything from gender and race to religion and even leadership style.

The trouble is, even if an organisation isn't intentionally looking for executive talent who fit the same profile as their predecessors, unconscious biases can have a critical - and sometimes problematic - effect on judgement.

What is unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias refers to the decisions, choices, and judgements we make of which we are not fully aware. We make decisions every single day, from what to have for breakfast to how to approach a task at work and even how we perceive others around us. Our brains make automatic assessments based on our background, cultural environment, and personal experiences.

Unconscious bias in hiring

Research has found that unconscious bias can heavily influence hiring decisions. Several experiments have highlighted bias by gender and ethnicity, for example.

So, how can organisations avoid bias in hiring?

One way is to simplify and standardise the screening process. Relying on software to do much of the initial vetting of candidates can make the process much more independent. Hiding candidates' names, faces, and personal information from employers during the initial hiring stage eliminates the risk of bias. However, while this might work for junior talent, it gets far more complex at the senior executive level.

In recent years, this ‘blind hiring’ practice has become popular. The concept was actually first introduced in the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1952. At the time most orchestras employed nearly all men. But when they asked musicians to audition behind a screen, the orchestra began accepting more women into their ranks.

However, it isn’t practical to anonymise the entire recruitment process. And once an employer conducts face-to-face interviews, there’s no way to mask a candidate’s name, gender, or ethnicity. Applying a blind hiring principle may help to yield a more diverse pool of interviewees, but employers will still ultimately be faced with the same hiring diversity challenges.

For some organisations, focus is placed on working to understand bias and setting diversity and inclusion goals. These goals put the issue front and centre so that people bear it in mind throughout the hiring process. Yet, exposing bias doesn’t make it disappear. Evidence suggests that in some cases, it can actually increase defensiveness and reinforce stereotypes.

Overcoming unconscious bias in executive search

Embracing diversity at the executive level has a positive business impact, and a good executive search firm will recognise this. They can have an important role to play in helping an organisation to overcome individual unconscious bias throughout the recruitment process to maximise diversity and representation of top talent. They will have invested in methods to broaden their network of potential candidates and in developing relationships with a diverse range.

As an external partner, an executive search firm offers the benefit of being able to provide an objective perspective. They can encourage people to move away from producing "mini-mes" and to look towards new talent for rounding out the collective offering of the team as a whole.

But diversity and inclusion efforts aren’t just about looking at expanding the horizon to recruit people from different backgrounds and demographics. As humans, we are predisposed to be attracted to people who think and act like us. But what if your top team is crying out for someone with a different leadership or behavioural style? An executive search firm can identify these gaps from an objective vantage point, without being worried about internal politics or deviating from historical hiring patterns.

A diverse top team can offer a significant boost to business. Organisations whose leadership teams represent their customer base and their workforce as a whole tend to enjoy both greater competitiveness and increased employee engagement. An executive search firm can offer an objective approach to encourage organisations to think outside the box and balance the different types of executive talent within the team.

Guide to Executive Search pillar page

Topics: Recruitment, executive search, Diversity