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Diversity, Culture and Innovation – Removing unconscious bias from the hiring process

When it comes to the diversity point, there are some stark facts in the current market to consider:

  • There are twice as many CEOs called John in the FTSE 100 as there are women[1]
  • 94% of tech staff in the big 4 Silicon Valley companies are white[2]
  • You have to send 74% more identical CVs if you have a name associated with an ethnic minority to receive an interview call back than if you have a white one[3]

Unconscious bias is not the sole cause of these issues, but it’s a key contributor, and we are all subject to it. If you are not sure it applies to you, you may be surprised by the results from trying out the famous Harvard’s Implicit Association Tests.

On the 23rd February, over 100 senior HR and Talent professionals from major consultancies, FTSE 350 companies, Investment banks, and the Civil Service, all braved storm Doris to come to the Offices of the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT, also known as ‘The Nudge Unit’), perhaps the most famous behavioural psychologists in the world, to see how they are tackling this problem.

The short answer is that re-wiring brains is very hard. Currently US corporates spend $8 billion annually on diversity training, and there is no real evidence that it has any impact. Even a well-meaning human mind is stubborn, and BIT argues that it is much easier and more effective to re-engineer processes and environments than it is people.

As an example, Iris Bohnet in her seminal work What Works: Gender Equality by Design recounts how in the 1970s only 5% of the musicians in the top 5 US orchestras were women.

In no way interested in gender diversity, but worried that the students of famous tutors might be benefiting from nepotism, the Boston Symphony Orchestra introduced blind auditions. The musicians would sit behind a screen and play; the evaluators could judge nothing but the music. As most the other major orchestras followed suit, something strange happened; women became 50% more likely to progress past the initial stages, and the overall proportion of women in orchestra’s rocketed.

It’s an interesting example for two reasons; firstly, the bias was very unconscious as any of the conductors would have been affronted if it had been suggested that they were taking into account anything but the music. Secondly, the problem was significantly mitigated, not by personal revelation, but a design decision.

This is a simple and elegant example, but obviously within a business context it can be much harder – as Owain Service, Managing Director of BIT, writes;

“….we realised that it was difficult for most HR functions, even in big organisations, to keep up with the latest behavioural research on how to hire the best people. Even if you do know the research, the latest studies show that it’s hard to apply these lessons in practice without implicit biases creeping in.”

Launching Applied

BIT’s solution was to launch 'Applied' – a technology platform spin off from BIT – using the latest research and their impressive track record to remove unconscious bias from recruitment processes.

During her presentation Kate Glazebrook (CEO and co-founder of Applied) detailed how the halo effect, groupthink, confirmation/affinity bias, stereotypes and comparison friction, all affect our judgement. She then demonstrated how the platform mitigated these biases through techniques such as anonymization, chunking, better evaluation criteria and utilising multiple assessors in unique ways.

The results were impressive.  Not only did Applied improve the diversity of graduate intakes, but the platform was a better predictor of assessment centre success than traditional methods. It is also worth noting that of the 128 people hired so far through the platform retention stands at 100%, 15% better than commercial norms. 

After Kate’s presentation we were treated to a panel discussion chaired by Geoff Mulgan (CEO of Nesta) with panellists including Amali de Alwis (CEO at CodeFirst: Girls), Rupert McNeil (Head of People at The Civil Service) and our very own James Callander (MD at Freshminds).

All the panellists spoke passionately about tech, diversity and social mobility. Some key themes that emerged were the significance that people analytics had to play in creating accountability and overcoming entrenched favouritism (McNield); how vital it is to build skills early and create role models, particularly within Tech (de Alwis); and the demonstrable commercial benefits of diverse teams, both in terms of talent pool access, but also in team performance (Callander). 

Talking about testing

The most exciting part of the evening for Freshminds was the announcement of our partnership between us and Applied to build Aptitude Testing products that are not subject to the biases of traditional tests and these environments.

It may seem odd that a Numerical Reasoning test could have implicit bias; however, strange as it may seem, there is a well-established self-removal and attainment gap between particular demographics where these tests are included.

We think there are good reasons that this is not about ability and we are very much looking forward to working with Applied to solve this particular problem. 


Patrick is the Innovation Manager at Freshminds.

Keep an eye out for further updates about the new testing products, and if you are interested in finding out more or have any questions, then please get in though with Patrick here

Read more about the Applied launch on their blog here