You’re a fair person, right? You stick to the rules when playing a game, give up your seat on public transport, you’re tolerant of everyone, whoever they are and wherever they’re from – that kind of thing? Of course.
So would it surprise you to know that, according to science, your own brain – your own subconscious – is working away, adding in a layer of bias to your actions and decision-making that can easily make those good and fair-minded choices you think you’re making seem, well, unfair.
Unconscious or implicit bias first appeared as a theory in the mid-noughties, and was defined as the “science of unconscious mental processes” – with obvious implications for discrimination in the workplace and out of it. It demonstrated that as we process around 99.9% of information at an unconscious level, we’re making judgements of people which, while not necessarily discriminatory, can certainly be unfair. Moreover, it can cause us to overlook talent – without even knowing we’re doing it.
In a recruitment context, that’s obviously an issue. Today, recruiting managers are well-drilled to see beyond skin colour, gender, and the other obvious signals of partiality. But, as Freud would no doubt tell you, your subconscious is a subtle beast, and a bias can manifest itself in many ways.
Perhaps it’s the accent of the candidate. Where they went to university. What you’ve decided is their class background. The bias won’t necessarily be negative – a candidate who has attended an institution you admire might get the nod because you equate its graduates with intelligence, which is surely a good thing, right?
This unconscious pigeon-holing happens literally in the blink of an eye – one-tenth of a second is the amount of time it takes us to form a judgement. So first impressions really do matter. This natural affinity bias – when we instinctively lean towards people who share qualities that are familiar to us, and which we therefore find relatable – is ultimately about self-preservation. Whether it’s gender, hair colour or fashion style – it is our intuition to seek out what makes us feel safe. But it also means we’re making snap judgements about candidates who could, otherwise, be just what we’re looking for.
By favouring what is familiar, we continue to fish from the same pond. Surely this make the travel industry less fair? And, crucially, does it mean the sector has less potential as a result?
I’d argue that in the scramble for differentiation and competitive advantage, brands should be doing more than just trying to be blind in their recruitment. They should be actively seeking out ways to do things differently, which means drawing their talent from across the entire spectrum of candidates. And this matters because different perspectives lead to different solutions.
So how do we get beyond what are, by definition, instinctive reactions? There are e-learning courses and tools to help recruiters mitigate against bias in the selection process, and develop methods to counteract such impulses. Recruiters need to be honest with themselves; acknowledge and confront their own bias and then consider each candidate through that lens. Do you have an assumption about what each gender is “better” at? Does a particular accent lead you to question someone’s capabilities? Introducing diverse views and backgrounds to the recruiting process itself can help to compensate against these predispositions.
By accepting that it takes self-discipline to overcome our instinct for self-preservation, we can level the playing field, give everyone the same opportunity to prove they are the best candidate and so broaden the talent pool in our industry. And that can only be a positive.
Ricky Wilkes is the founder of Wander, which is committed to building a modern and exciting travel industry by finding new ways of connecting employers and employees.