The Boardroom: Tackling Unconscious Bias

Diversity on Boards is, and quite rightly continues to be, a hot topic. With the news last month that there was not a single CEO, CFO or Chair from an ethnic minority background on the boards of any FTSE 100 businesses, it serves only to underline that there remains work to be done. Norman Broadbent’s Board practice has been at the forefront for improved inclusion and diversity for decades. Over the last ten years, we have seen the emphasis on diversity shift, with first the Davies report in 2010 shining a light on gender diversity, and more recently the Parker report, setting a similar agenda for ethnic diversity. However, in the background of this conversation, there is also an increasing acknowledgment that what is key – and what these various movements are really trying to address – is diversity of thought.

While diversity on boards and in leadership positions is important from a moral perspective, as well as providing positive role models, it has also been shown time and again that bringing together individuals from different backgrounds and with different perspectives confers a commercial advantage to organisations. They are less likely to fall prey to ‘group think’ and are more agile, more curious, and better placed to take advantage of unexpected opportunities. Many of our clients are recognising this and have approached us to work with them to introduce greater diversity onto their boards, not just for the public perception, or because they have been challenged to do so, but because they are aware of the benefits that a truly diverse board can bring.

Yet the challenges of building a diverse board are multi-faceted; one of the biggest challenges many boards face when tackling diversity is that of unconscious bias. Despite the (now ex-) Chair of KPMG’s assertion last week that unconscious bias is “complete cr*p”, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that, on the contrary, it is a real phenomenon and one that often threatens to derail the most carefully considered of hiring processes. Recently at Norman Broadbent, we have had several conversations with clients not only about mitigating unconscious bias in our search process, which we do as a matter of course, but also around supporting them once candidates reach the client interview stage. Because what is the good of Norman Broadbent running a carefully mitigated search if the client falls back into well-worn modes of thinking, and hires the ‘safe’ candidate?

Unconscious bias – what is it?

The first critical thing to understand is what internal bias is. Many individuals resist the idea of unconscious bias because they interpret it as an accusation of secret or internalised racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. However, unconscious bias is merely an artefact of the shortcuts the human brain takes every day to understand the world and people around us. We have evolved to make quick decisions about whether other humans are ‘friend’ or ‘foe’, from ‘our’ clan or ‘other’. We can no more stop our brains making those quick judgements and assessments than we can stop breathing. There are many different types of unconscious bias, including:

  • Affinity bias : Showing a preference for candidates who are like us and making more of an effort to put these candidates at ease.
  • Confirmation bias : Making assumptions about a candidate’s ability to do the job – subconsciously seeking evidence to confirm our pre-existing opinions, while rejecting evidence that contradicts our assumption.
  • Contrasting : Allowing the experience of interviewing one candidate to affect how other candidates are interviewed – candidates are compared and contrasted against each other, rather than measured on their individual performance against the job description and pre-determined selection criteria.
  • Stereotyping : Assuming that certain traits will make candidates perform better or worse in the role. For example, assuming that women with young families will be ‘less committed’ to a job, or that older people struggle with technology.
  • The ‘Halo’ or ‘Horns’ Effect: Allowing a first impression to affect ongoing assessment. For example, candidates with tattoos or piercings often can be considered to give a poor first impression, with confirmation bias then stepping in to affect perception of their other answers as ‘less good’ than other candidates.

Since we cannot stop our brains from making these judgements, it is vital that we recognise we have them and take steps to mitigate against them. Often simply being aware and accepting that unconscious bias exists is a big step forward. However, we also work with clients to:

  • Interview with a diverse panel. Ensuring the interviewing panel is diverse avoids all members falling into ‘group think’. Encourage the panel to form their own decisions and come up with their individual shortlists prior to conferring. Every member of the panel should have a voice and be encouraged to share their thoughts openly.
  • Challenge easy agreements. Designate a member of the panel (or ask someone outside the panel) to challenge decisions by asking questions, particularly if a consensus has been reached quickly. (For example, if all members of the panel agree that candidate “C” was not appropriate for the job, be prepared to explain why. If it is that they lack the appropriate qualifications, that’s fine. If, however, it is that all panel members ‘felt they weren’t a good fit’ it may be worth drilling down into that assumption). You can ask someone from outside of the panel to fulfil this role – from another department, or even from your recruiting partner. Norman Broadbent have provided independent consultants in the past who can challenge decisions and ‘flag up’ potential issues.
  • Compare candidates against criteria, not against one another. At Norman Broadbent, we always score candidates against a number of criteria to create an objective, competency driven process, and we recommend that our clients do the same. You can even use a standardised set of interview questions to ensure that each candidate is asked the same questions in the same order. It also can help to spread interviews out rather than conducting them back-to-back, which makes it harder to directly compare candidates to one another.
  • Take time. Rushed processes can often allow bias to creep in as we rely more on those mental short cuts. Ensure the panel has sufficient time to conduct the interviews and draw up their conclusions, noting down the evidence for those decisions. Rushed hires are more likely to be based on ‘gut feel’ and that is where unconscious bias thrives.
  • Be wary of decisions made around cultural fit. This can be a challenge, as for a board to be effective, good cultural fit is essential. However, too often, cultural fit is seen as a byword for ‘someone like us’ – and results in the hire of an un-diverse candidate. Think about what ‘cultural fit’ is really needed – are you seeking someone collegiate, able to assert themselves, content to take a back seat or more likely to challenge and put themselves forward? Add those criteria to your objective competency marks, and you may be able to avoid unconscious bias creeping in.

Mitigating against unconscious bias is just one part of what makes a successful search. Often a conversation needs to start closer to home with a discussion about what clients mean when they say they want more diversity on the Board. This can be done one to one or with the Board as a group, encouraging them to think about desired skills and attributes and to separate them from any preconceived ideas about ‘what type of person’ they might be seeking. It is important that there is someone – internal or external – to challenge these assumptions. Many boards, for example will rule out a first time non-executive, but we know that in certain in-demand sectors, like Digital, current executives are the ones with the relevant skills and experience. These sessions also go on to inform the criteria that candidates are scored against, making the process both qualitative and objective, but also targeted to the needs of that specific Board.

Unconscious bias is a real phenomenon, and a challenge for those sincerely tackling diversity across their organisations – but we hope that with a little help, our clients are better positioned to mitigate against it, and reap the rewards that a successful search brings.

For more information on Inclusion & Diversity or Unconscious Bias, please contact Andrew Smith at