The Civility & Collegiality Matters™ Series
Mirror Neurons & Unconscious Bias
Cultural diversity recruitment is far from easy. Interviewer bias is a common troublemaker for the best recruitment efforts. Social science research supports this view. In one set of studies, researchers concluded that humans have mirror neurons that activate the prefrontal lobe area of the brain during social encounters. These mirror neurons play a role in decision making. A specific prefrontal lobe region lights up when we encounter people who we perceive as similar to us. A different part of the prefrontal lobe fires up when we encounter people we perceive as dissimilar. Features like gender and race matter to mirror neurons.
More recent studies indicate that the human mirror system is activated automatically in social interactions. Gestures such as facial expressions activate the mirror system. Mirroring occurs unconsciously and it has an effect on our decision making. Furthermore, we tend to project ourselves onto similar people in answering our questions about them. Given that our mirror system influences decision making and the outcome depends on how similar a person is to us, the implications for cultural diversity recruitment success or failure must be studied.
What happens when cultural diversity recruitment efforts attempt to limit bias, yet fall short after the face to face interview. Two best practices specifically designed to control for bias against historically excluded group (HEG) recruits are the Rooney Rule and blind hiring. A closer look at each offers insights into the promise and shortcomings of the strategies.
Cultural Diversity Recruitment Strategies Design to Mitigate Bias
The Rooney Rule is the most recognized of the two practices. The Pittsburgh Steelers football team owner Dan Rooney coined the recruitment strategy in 2002 to address the poor representation of coaches of color in the National Football League. He believed that more than enough cultural diversity talent existed in the recruitment pool. The problem in his mind was that HEGs were not on the football team owners’ and coaches’ radar when slots were available. The rule which was adopted by the league requires teams to include cultural diversity candidates in interviews for head coaching and executive level jobs.
The practice is often incorrectly assumed to be a quota system or form of affirmative action. The Rooney rule merely holds recruiters accountable for interviewing people of color and quotas are not required. Head coaches and team executives are tasked to put conscious effort into making certain that HEGs are included in interviews. The accountability built into the cultural diversity recruitment practice noticeably increased the number of black coaches and team administrators. Organizations outside of sports have adopted versions of the Rooney Rule.
The other promising cultural diversity recruitment practice is the blind hiring approach. Blind hiring aims to recruit solely on the basis of ability by mitigating bias against HEG applicants. The typical approach involves reviewing applications as objectively as possible from the start of recruitment to selection. Non-job-related background information is removed, such as a photograph of the applicant, name, gender. The practice was first used in blind auditions during orchestra member recruitment. Candidates auditioned behind closed curtains to reduce interviewer bias and thus increase cultural diversity hiring. The practice has increased recruitment of women as orchestra members by 50%.
As impressive as the Rooney Rule and blind recruitment results have been, both leave considerable room for improvement. One problem is the inconsistent use of each practice over time and hiring managers’ need to conduct face to face interviews in the final phase of the selection decision. Football teams that enthusiastically implemented the Rooney Rule early on have begun to slack off using the system consistently. The sacred face to face interview that often takes place just before the final decision tends to undermine the otherwise best efforts to reduce bias in the blind recruitment practice.
We know that bias creeps in once the recruit enters the face to face interview phase. That is one reason some organizations have turned to recruitment platforms that use artificial intelligence to identify talent. No humans are involved. This will not likely catch on at any time in the foreseeable future. It is very difficult to give up the sacred face to face interview. Failure to meet the desired recruitment goals after putting in so much effort can be understandably demoralizing and costly. If we cannot give up face to face interviews that inevitably lead to bias, what can recruiters do to safeguard fairness and talent acquisition?
Why Our Best Intentions Contribute to a Cycle of Exclusion
What happens during the face to face interview that makes it difficult to meet the most dedicated cultural diversity recruitment goals? It is easy to blame it on interviewer bias, but that is too simplistic. You have presumably highly qualified candidates that are competitive enough on paper to make it to the interview phase. Certainly. the interviewer is not intentionally trying to undermine any candidates or the cultural diversity hiring goals. Most Americans value treating people fairly and those committed to cultural diversity value inclusion. Yet, they do not perform better in cultural diversity hiring.
Social science research provides sufficient evidence that the goal of hiring the best candidate itself limits the recruiter’s ability to override biases.
Our best efforts to support inclusion fail for the following reasons. Social science research provides sufficient evidence that the goal of hiring the best candidate itself limits the recruiter’s ability to override biases. Research studies demonstrate that when the stakes are not that high, such as selecting employees to serve on the holiday party committee, a more culturally diverse group is typically selected. The stakes are higher when hiring someone to be a permanent employee. These conditions are ripe for unconscious bias which wreaks havoc on the best cultural diversity recruitment efforts during the interview.
Cultural diversity recruitment bias works like this. The very goal of cultural diversity hiring activates our stereotypes and biases. We are not conscious of it. Our mirror neurons fire up the part of the part of our brain that projects onto recruits that are more similar to us while dissimilar others are not afforded the luxury. The result is that in the end, we get the same results we put so much effort into trying to avoid.
How to Avoid the Hidden Cultural Diversity Recruitment Best Practice Saboteur
Once we learn that everyone suffers from unconscious bias, most of us think that we can control when it matters. Yet, the evidence suggests that attempts to control bias when we are expected to support the cultural diversity recruitment goal actually undermine our best efforts. Willpower is not enough. Think about it this way. A pot of water becomes gradually warmer under very low heat. At some point, the water is no longer cold. The rise in temperature is just noticeable and still not warm enough to make tea. We do not give any attention to temperature changes that occur before the water is ready for making tea. Unconscious bias works in a similar way. In the cultural diversity interview, the temperature never reaches the point at which the recruiter notices, yet it is having an impact on their hiring decision.
There are a number of things cultural diversity recruiters can do to gauge bias early in the recruitment decision-making process. But, that assumes little effort has been put into creating a level playing field. Recruitment methods that attempt to control for bias at the outset, such as the Rooney Rule and blind evaluations falter after the face to face interview. One simple change can make these practices more effective. When the candidates’ credentials are very similar and the manager leans towards the one that is most similar to her or him, the HEG must be selected instead. That is absolutely the best way to control bias. Avoid relying on your best judgment at that late stage in the selection process. It is too unreliable.
Most recruiters and managers really want to promote a culturally diverse workplace. We simply can’t get out of our way due to suffering from Ambivalent Inclusion and unconscious bias. Only by controlling for bias can we be certain we have given it our best efforts. Blind recruitment practices and accountability are promising, but only to the degree that face to face interviews do not take place. When face to face interviews are too cherished to avoid, then the only way to control for bias is to give more weight to the HEG candidate when the candidates are otherwise equally qualified.
Lieberman, M. (2010). Social cognitive neuroscience. Chapter 5, Fiske, S.T., Gilbert, D.T., & Lindzey, G. (2010). Handbook of Social Psychology (5th Edition). pp. 143-193). John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, N.J.
Rice, C. (2013). How blind auditions help orchestras to eliminate gender bias. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/women-in-leadership/2013/oct/14/blind-auditions-orchestras-gender-bias
Dijksterhuis, AP. (2010). Automaticity and the unconscious. Chapter 7, Fiske, S.T., Gilbert, D.T., & Lindzey, G. (2010). Handbook of Social Psychology (5th Edition). pp. 228-267). John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, N.J.
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