Dr Zara Whysall, Research & Impact Director at Kiddy & Partners October 31 2023

Identifying and overcoming biases

Cognitive biases present a thorny challenge for DEI&B because we’re all influenced by biases but are largely unaware of their existence. Given that they operate at an automatic, subconscious level, being made aware that our judgements and behaviour can be influenced by biases does little to improve the quality of judgements or behaviours. The best you can do is recognise that we’re all influenced by biases, actively try to spot biases in each other’s’ thinking, and then change those faulty assumptions before they have an unfair impact on decisions and outcomes.

First, let's explore: How do biases show up?

The detrimental impact of biases is well-documented across a range of areas of work, from recruitment decisions to selection and promotion decisions. But they also influence our behaviours in more subtle ways, such as who we choose to offer our support to, who we reach out to collaborate with or seek opinions from, how we allocate resources and opportunities, not to mention overall workplace dynamics.



One of the most common types of biases is stereotyping. Stereotypes are labels that encapsulate what a person believes about, and expects from, other people. They’re dangerous because they’re often untrue, involving inaccurate assumptions and over-extensions, and leading to views that members of a particular group are more alike than they really are, and that members of different groups are more different than they really are. The extent of this challenge is highlighted by research showing that stereotyping can lead to racial discrimination even when the person making the judgement avows to be completely indifferent to racial stereotypes.

A striking example of stereotyping came from a US study involving 5000 CVs in response to job adverts, each with a randomly assigned a stereotypically African-American- or White-sounding name. CVs for candidates with stereotypically white-sounding names received 50% more callbacks for interviews. This bias persisted regardless of occupation, industry, or employer size, and has also been found against immigrant applicants across a variety of occupations towards applicants with foreign experience or Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, and Greek names compared with English names. Although recruiters justified their decisions based on language skill concerns, the study showed that listing language fluency, multinational firm experience, or education from highly selective schools did nothing to diminish the bias.

In-group bias: 


Also known as the ‘similar-to-me’ bias, in-group bias is one of the other main types of bias that poses a challenge for DE&I. Essentially, it’s the tendency to feel a stronger degree of affinity with, trust of, and therefore favouritism towards people who we see as similar to ourselves. In the recruitment context it reflects the tendency for interviewers or recruiting managers to appoint candidates in their own self-image; people who are like themselves.

In-group bias affects our thought processes in various ways. For instance, interviewers tend to notice and remember more detailed information about candidates similar to themselves, asking more questions to obtain information about ‘similar-to-me’ candidates. In contrast, they tend to notice and remember less information about candidates they see as different to themselves, ask fewer questions, and selectively retain information that confirms their existing stereotypes about them.

What can we do about it? 


Whilst informing and educating people about cognitive biases is a first step in becoming aware of them, research shows that traditional training programmes alone are likely to be of limited value. Essentially, the impact of biases is not mitigated by awareness of their existence, because they operate at an automatic, subconscious level. As other academic experts add, “you can’t just outlaw bias… The positive effects of diversity training rarely last beyond a day or two, and a number of studies suggest that it can activate bias or spark a backlash”.


7 steps to consider: 


1. Make people aware of the powerful impact of biases through education about cognitive biases, but don't stop there.

2. Adapt your recruitment and selection processes to minimise the impact of biases. For example, make screening of CVs and applications 'blind' - remove or obscure anything that isn't relevant to job performance, particularly aspects known to trigger stereotypes such as name, age, gender. 

3. Ensure interview panels are diverse, to balance our in-group bias.

4. Ensure any assessment interviews are structured, situational in nature, to encourage interviewers to focus only on relevant factors. 

5. Use a range of metrics to inform recruitment and promotion decisions and processes are equally as robust. Often organisations pay much more attention to making their recruitment processes robust, but then allow biases to creep into and potentially dominate promotion processes by allowing these to be informal, unstructured, and driven by subjective management opinions. 

7. Extend this thinking to consider how biases are impacting decisions made on more everyday tasks and activities, such as who is offered a potentially high-impact opportunity or project, who information is shared with or whose views are sought. 


So, let’s take this next step together. Embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion as a catalyst of growth, innovation, and success.

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