Is your talent management process subject to unconscious bias?


17 February 2017


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Last week, the BBC reported that it’s easier to get a job if you're Adam than Mohamed. Their mini study replicated findings published in academic journals, by sending out fictitious CVs which are identical except for the name. In the original, U.S. study, researchers sent around 5,000 CVs in response to job adverts, each with a randomly assigned a stereotypically African-American or White-sounding name. Those with stereotypically white sounding names received 50% more callbacks for interviews. This bias persists regardless of occupation, industry, or employer size1. It has also been found against immigrant applicants, with recruiters justifying their decisions based on language concerns, despite CVs listing language fluency, multinational firm experience, and education from top schools.2

Stereotypes, it seems, are alive and well in occupational selection. Stereotypes are a type of subconscious bias, and evidence suggests that it is this type of bias; the implicit, subconscious type; that is a big cause of workplace discrimination today.

Subconscious bias is also rife in promotion decisions. Ingroup (“like me”) bias means that managers tend to be more generous in their evaluations of employees who are similar to them, whether it be in terms of race, gender, or other obvious demographic characteristics. So they tend to attribute success of those similar to themselves to internal, dispositional characteristics (“they succeeded because they’re good”). In contrast, achievements of ‘outgroup’ employees are more often attributed to external factors such as chance or fluke (“they were lucky”).3 Unfortunately, many promotion decisions tend to be highly subjective, based on vague or nonexistent criteria, and thereby open to significant bias. In the 1990s a review of 64 promotions in 3 Fortune 500 companies revealed that “formally collected data didn’t enter into the promotion decision.”4Is the situation any better today? In my experience, it’s a very mixed picture.  

Without a robust assessment and development process, promotion decisions are likely to be based on subjective personal knowledge of the candidate, with decision-makers relying on perceived similarity to themselves, or the extent to which they feel ‘comfortable’ with an individual; reasons given more often for promotions involving men than women.5 

Unfortunately, unconscious bias is not only in the ‘eye of the beholder’, can also directly impact an individual’s performance through stereotype threat. This is the finding that performance of individuals in the minority group (which could be a male in a female dominated industry) can be impaired when they are reminded of ways in which they might be negatively stereotyped.6 For instance, imagine a woman applying for the ‘future leaders’ programme within her engineering firm. As she waits for her panel interview, she sits in the lobby surrounded by portraits of the company’s current and previous CEOs, dating back since the company was founded. As she glances down the long line of portraits, she notices that they are all men. Doubt of her own suitability is planted in her mind, as she questions whether a woman could ever run this firm. This “threat in the air”6 causes additional anxiety and distraction, which impairs her performance in the interview.

There’s growing recognition that discrimination in society today is largely implicit and so has become “invisible, deep, and pervasive”.7 This might explain why, despite the documented benefits of workplace diversity, progress in achieving it has been slow.8It’s important that we recognise this, because to address discrimination caused by subconscious biases, a different approach is needed. These subtler, deeper routed forms of discrimination require subtler and more deep-routed interventions.

Instead of attempting to ‘outlaw’ implicit bias, its motivational underpinning must be addressed, along with the cultural factors which may trigger or maintain the beliefs and attitudes underpinning the bias. Greater attention also needs to be paid to the decision-making process itself - to unearth the subtle (and job irrelevant) factors that can influence talent management, potentially leading to discrimination. Whatever happens, stick to your data, resist the temptation to throw the criteria out of the window and go with a lower scoring candidate just because you feel they have a better “fit”. The vague concept of “fit” can hide many sins, and anyway, what are you trying to create, a workforce of replicas?



1Bertrand, M., & Mullainathan, S. (2004). Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination. American Economic Review, 94, 991-1013.

2Oreopoulos, P. (2011). Why Do Skilled Immigrants Struggle in the Labor Market? A Field Experiment with Six Thousand Resumes. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, 3, 148–171.

3Hung-Ng, S. (1981). Equity theory and the allocation of rewards between groups. European Journal of Social Psychology, 11, 439–443; Tsui, A., & O'Reilly, C. (1989). Beyond Simple Demographic Effects: The Importance of Relational Demography in Superior-Subordinate Dyads. The Academy of Management Journal, 32(2), 402-423.

4Ruderman M. N., & Ohlott P. J. (1994). The realities of management promotion. Greensboro, NC: Center for Creative Leadership.

5Ruderman M. N., Ohlott P. J., & Kram K. E. (1995). Promotion decisions as a diversity practice. Journal of Management Development, 14(2), 6–23.

6Schmader, T. (2010). Stereotype threat deconstructed. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19, 14-18.

7Bartlett, K. (2009). Making Good on Good Intentions: The Critical Role of Motivation in Reducing Implicit Workplace Discrimination. 95 Virginia Law Review 1893-1972. Available at:

8Dobbin, F., & Kalev, A. (2016). Why Diversity Programs Fail. Harvard Business Review, 94 (7).

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