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Unconscious bias is a social stereotype about certain groups of people that often begins at the start of the hiring process. It can often sabotage efforts around diversity and inclusion and impact a company’s long-term goals, says Misty Gaither, senior director, global head of diversity, inclusion and belonging at Indeed, where 7.5 million unique visitors in Canada turn every month to find jobs (Comscore October 2021).

“It affects all aspects of a business; not just who we attract but also the organization’s capability for innovation and strategy to actually outperform competitors,” Ms. Gaither says. “If you don’t address the issue of unconscious bias, you end up with an organization that will suffer from groupthink and lack innovation.”

Unconscious bias may be inadvertently limiting the pool of available talent even as companies struggle to fill positions, she says. And that will ultimately affect the customer and client experience.

This, in turn, has an economic cost for companies lacking diversity in their ranks. A McKinsey & Co. report shows companies in the top quartile for ethnic diversity on executive teams were 36 per cent more likely to have above-average profitability in 2019 versus those in the fourth quartile, up from 33 per cent across the same categories in 2017.

Still, overall progress is slow, McKinsey notes, citing bias and discrimination as part of the problem.

The basis of bias

Tackling unconscious bias is a challenge because it’s happening outside of our awareness, Ms. Gaither says. The most obvious biases are race and ethnicity, gender identity and age, but we can also have an unwitting bias about where people live, their family beliefs and backgrounds.

“We all have our own set of unconscious biases, and scientific evidence tells us that, unfortunately, there’s no way to get rid of it,” Ms. Gaither says.

She says unconscious bias creeps into the hiring process in a number of ways, starting even before someone decides to click to apply for a job.

“How we develop our external presence through social media, through our websites, the imagery we project, our job descriptions, can reflect unconscious bias,” Ms. Gaither explains. “It also happens during the candidate screening process and interviews.”

Companies and hiring managers must try to mitigate the problem by putting inclusive processes in place for hiring and the rest of the employee life cycle, she says.

Ways to address the bias within

Indeed has been actively addressing and seeking to reduce biases within its organization, Ms. Gaither says, by looking at the data and finding out which groups, skill sets and backgrounds are under-represented.

The company has a goal to have 50 per cent female representation at all levels of the organization by 2030. She says that setting such goals and being transparent internally and externally about progress helps ensure real steps are taken, such as examining the hiring process and internal talent pipeline.

“I think the first thing is to acknowledge and accept that unconscious bias exists,” Ms. Gaither says. “Then, you have to know where you’re starting so you can set some aspirational goals.”

One example of these strategies is committing to efforts like the 50-30 Challenge. In December 2020, the federal government asked Canadian companies, non-profit and post-secondary organizations to commit to 50 per cent gender parity and 30 per cent representation on corporate boards and in senior management for under-represented groups, including racialized Canadians and Indigenous people, people living with disabilities and members of the LGBTQ+ community.

The business case for more diversity

A 2019 joint study by the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion (CCDI) and Dalhousie University found 95 per cent of senior leaders surveyed believed diversity is a business strategy that positively contributes to innovation, creativity and problem-solving and 100 per cent believed diverse viewpoints added value to their organizations.

Yet, only 68 per cent frequently communicated about diversity and inclusion to employees.

Now more than ever, employers can’t afford not to address diversity, says Michael Bach, founder and chief executive officer of CCDI Consulting.

“Employers are not in a position to overlook any talent,” Mr. Bach says. “And you want to make sure you’re keeping people as long as possible.”

He points to research showing people categorize gender within one-fifth of a second and ethnicity within one-tenth of a second. It’s a brain function and there is no way to avoid it.

There are, however, ways to circumvent unconscious bias, Mr. Bach says, including multi-person hiring panels and clear scoring criteria. These aren’t perfect solutions, he notes, but they’re a start.

“I’d love to tell you there is a perfect way to go through an interviewing process or talent attraction process that doesn’t involve bias. Such a process doesn’t exist and that’s largely because human beings are involved,” Mr. Bach says. “Work towards getting something better than what you have and then revisit as you go.”

Watch out for the ‘good fit’

Kim Scaravelli, managing partner at The Canadian Diversity Initiative, a social enterprise set up to promote diversity and inclusion through education, says addressing unconscious bias in hiring is the most important step in improving diversity and inclusion throughout an organization.

“By the time you smell smoke, the house is on fire. Unconscious bias is the underlying thing,” she says.

Yes, there are processes out there – blind hiring, independent applicant screening – that can be quite effective. But ultimately, they rely to some extent on “tricking” the interviewer.

“It always has seemed more logical to me to address why you’re feeling that way,” she says. “To try and trick you into not seeing the gender or the nationality or the height or the weight or the age of the people you’re interviewing feels like a difficult way to solve a problem.”

The most recognizable red flag is hiring “a good culture fit,” she says. Those involved in hiring should be able to explain clearly and in concrete terms why they want to hire someone.

“Nobody’s company became more productive and nothing ever got done better because a bunch of people fit together,” she says. “Any time someone says someone’s a good fit, what they’re really saying is, that person’s like me.”


Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio with Indeed. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.