The one with the blind spot

The CIPD re-launched its beleaguered flag ship title “People Management” yesterday and whilst I am bemused to be considered a power tweeter (when most of what I tweet is about people annoying me on the tube) there was an article that caught my attention about bias and how at an unconscious level it manifests for an individual.

You can find a link to the article here but the big messages are:

  • 40% of respondents favour one gender (overwhelmingly women)
  • 37% of respondents biased against men
  • 51% of respondents would be biased against overweight women [nothing mentioned about overweight men much to my relief, although I’m sure it exists]
  • 7% of respondents biased in support of people with a disability but nearly a quarter biased against those with disabilities
  • Nearly three quarters of respondents reported no bias for age (which does leave the quarter who may do…)

So if you’re an overweight woman or a man with a disability – expect unconscious bias at every turn maybe?

I think the subject of bias is a fascinating one and only yesterday evening I was having a beer with some colleagues and one lady who was being grilled about her love life happened to say “I’d never date a Scottish man”, when asked why she said, “I dated a Scottish guy once and it didn’t go well”. Are all Scottish men not great at dating? But seriously, I think this anecdotally illustrates that for many bias is formed through individual experience extrapolated to form a stereotype. And for the record not all Welsh people can sing… (but we can all hold our drink – that bit is true)

As a man working in HR I have definitely experienced anecdotal bias, something as simple as a senior manager working into a department and exclaiming “Morning Ladies” to which myself or my one other male colleague would inevitably mutter “and us”. This extended to the choice of social event, Christmas party and we were definitely excluded from the wedding conversations when two female colleagues were getting married. This bias we were delighted with! Given the disadvantages women have experienced in dealing with boy’s clubs for so long it always felt petty to comment and given I’m fairly comfortable in my own skin then it didn’t really matter.

As a recruiter I’ve always been fascinated with the point where bias meets reputation – are all people who went to Oxbridge brilliant? (No) Does a London Business School MBA endow the holder with strategic genius? (No) Does the fact that an individual has worked for a particular organisation automatically make them brilliant at the things that their organisation excels at? (No).

Don’t get me wrong – some people who went to Oxbridge are brilliant, some LBS MBAs are strategic geniuses and (for example) Unilever has produced some amazing brand marketers – but it isn’t automatic.

What the People Management article has made me do is stop and think about the bias that maybe influences my decision making, reflect on whether there are patterns in my decisions about people and considering my team are recruiting and I will be involved in interviews challenge myself to surface an unconscious biases so at least I can ‘manage them out’ rather than let them influence my thinking.

There’s a great collection of thinking on bias on Wikipedia which forms some very interesting reading but I would leave you with one question: can you think about an experience that has driven you to be biased?



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7 responses to “The one with the blind spot

  1. Well put Rob. I would like to think I’ve some learned behaviour for the better, some cultural upbringing that shapes my unbiased thoughts and my belief in the human spirit that “unconditional positive regard” actually means something to me. I have biases and I took this test. I was pleased with the results I had but saddened by stereotypes that seem to drive others’ biases. Reputationa capital was something Rachel Botsman talked about – not in the sense of bias per se – but at each turn, what we do to and think about others becomes our reputation. Impacts of misogynistic acts, cruel jokes at others expense and the sheer lack of understanding can damn others and ultimately, you as perpetrator of such harsh behaviours. In HR we have a lot of responsibility on our shoulders to model positive, inclusive and ultimately fair / humane behaviours. For the sake of our profession, one I love being part of, let’s hope we take a long hard and critical look at ourselves and seek to understand others. Only then will we be understood and respected and maybe revered. You ARE a power tweeter by the way, and you”re certainly a powerful force in blogging for good and stimulating the right thoughts. Keep on keepin’ on and maybe even you and I might sing a duet together one time soon? Together in perfect harmony…or hilarious in our own way. Nice nice nice blog. As ever.

  2. Cass LP

    Thanks for the analysis Rob, and Perry. What interested me about this was no mention of the results being slightly at odds with the hi % of men at the top of HR, tho it does indicate those who get thr are tougher cookies for getting past all those biases. 😉 It is sad that HR clearly still has a long way to go on the agent of diversity agenda but I guess it’s studies like this that get us talking frankly and openly about bias, which can only be a good thing, however uncomfortable!

  3. Interesting post! Talking of the ‘beleaguered’ People Management, there is generally about one interesting article in it every two or three months, but then I work in L&D, not HR.
    Talking of bias, is it ok to have a women-only networking group in 2012? What reaction would I get if I set up a men-only networking group? (Not saying I would – can’t imagine anything more boring!)

  4. Doug Shaw

    This is a wonderfully well written post. I’m in a train just now so will try and respond with anecdotal bias stuff later. For now though, I think Perry’s point about the impact of the behaviour is v powerful. It surfaced during a discussion about bias on Facebook last night, who’d have thought it eh 😉

  5. Nice piece. I’m a fat, middled aged woman so the odds are stacked against me apparently. I’ve tweeted the link to this but I can’t find your Twitter name on this blog any where so couldn’t attribute it to you, sorry.

  6. Johanna Ratcliffe

    Hi Rob
    Thoughtful post, life’s rich tapestry and all that – I like to think I’m tolerant and accepting of all sorts of people – accept maybe the leery, drunk ones that seem to gravitate towards a seat next to me on the train! In the workplace however, for me it’s all about contributing to the business and being a good colleague – people who can do that in any outer package are welcome in my book. If I’m doing any recruiting in the future I’ll do my level best to keep a very open mind.

  7. I found it interesting that men in HR exhibited bias against men. In occupations where women are in the minority (some areas of banking for example), I’m aware of anecdotal evidence that many exhibit bias against other women. Could this be because, in occupations with a prevalence of one gender, the same sex colleagues are viewed as competition in the process of needing or wanting to curry favour with the dominant majority? Great post, really enjoyed reading and thinking about the issues raised.

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