Talent Management

Focus on the process: reducing bias in decision-making

Decision-making experts suggest we move from the individual to the collective,  from the decision maker  to the decision-making  process  to reduce the impact of unconscious bias.

Decision-making experts suggest we move from the individual to the collective, from the decision maker to the decision-making process to reduce the impact of unconscious bias.

If we’re serious about building fair, inclusive workplaces, mitigating bias - both conscious and unconscious - is well recognised as an important step. As individuals, many of us are now aware of actions we can take to challenge cognitive biases in our workplaces.

But the reality is it’s hard to control our automatic or default judgements. That’s why decision-making experts suggest we move from the individual to the collective, from the decision maker to the decision-making process.

These new processes and adjustments can help us evaluate information more objectively and make sound decisions. They can also contribute to greater diversity - in thinking approaches and demographic background. (And a quick scroll-through of our blog leaves you in little doubt that’s a driving force and passion for us!)

This can include creating processes to track and measure the diversity of people hired and promoted, and using this data to identify and address issues. Another proven way to reduce unconscious bias is to undertake what is known as “blind hiring”, where CVs are received anonymously, with references to name, gender, age, disability, schools, hobbies and ethnicity removed because information often impairs our ability to make fair judgements.

Creating checklists, such as agreed criteria for decisions or structured questions for interviews, also helps to reduce bias in decision making.

The reality is it’s hard to control our automatic or default judgements. That’s why decision-making experts suggest we move from the individual to the collective, from the decision maker to the decision-making process.

When organisations work at reducing the effect on bias in their decision making processes, a study by McKinsey of more than 1,000 major decisions – including investments in new products and M & A decisions – showed higher returns on investment.


Here’s a few more tips to help mitigate bias in decision-making processes:

  • In team meetings, appoint a ‘leader of the opposition’ or ‘devil’s advocate’ and rotate the role

  • Introduce a protocol at the end of team meetings where team members can provide anonymous feedback (perhaps on a post-it note) on how included they felt (via a score of 1 - 5) and one thing in the next team meeting that would help them feel more included.

  • Use different communication channels to receive inputs on a project - some people are more comfortable providing inputs via email or direct phone call rather than in a team meeting.

These are the types of actions we discuss with leaders in our education programs to encourage good decision-making. We also conduct reviews of key HR policies and processes to reduce the potential for bias.

If you’d like to know more, please email info@diversitypartners.com.au or chat with us on 1800 571 999. Having worked with tens of thousands of leaders in more than 300 organisations, the team is well equipped to answer your questions or design an appropriate solution to help your organisation challenge unconscious bias, improve decision-making, and progress diversity.

Why refreshing talent management policies with a diversity and inclusion lens is important

We've been working with many clients to hard-wire diversity and inclusion in talent policies.  

We systematically review each policy to identify ways to minimise the potential for unconscious bias, attract a diverse candidate pool, and actively seek out leadership candidates with an inclusion competency.

This type of review is important because unconscious biases in organisational processes, systems and cultures often work against creating a level, objective foundation for decision-making. 

Unconscious biases in organisational processes, systems and cultures often work against creating a level, objective foundation for decision-making.

Unconscious biases in organisational processes, systems and cultures often work against creating a level, objective foundation for decision-making.

While we all like to think we recruit the ‘right person for the role’ solely on merit, the reality is that recruitment and promotion processes can lead to what we call an 'orthodoxy of talent' because of the impact of affinity bias and confirmation bias, among other types of unconscious bias.

Unconscious bias plays out in a number of ways. It's particularly challenging because this type of bias is implicit or unconscious - that is, we're often not aware of it.

And while it's important to educate leaders on ways they can personally challenge unconscious bias through leadership development programs, it's equally important to review existing policies and practices. Making these types of changes strengthens the opportunity for positive cultural change. As Harvard professor and behavioral economist Iris Bohnet explains, '...it’s easier to change your processes than your people'.

When we review policies, we often find that job descriptions capture the attention of, and funnel in, people who think and act in a particular way. Particular words stereotypically associated with men or women (for example, ‘dominant’, ‘determined’, ‘loyal’) influence who applies. As does stating that a role must be done full time rather than flexibly.

Resumes may be put aside because of experience gaps, such as taking time out of the workforce to raise a family.

The gender of the people currently doing the role will influence who is seen as most suitable.

Interviews that don’t follow a structured question template leave room for affinity bias (our preference for people like us) to creep in. And candidates who don’t conform to stereotypes will be less likely to be hired and promoted.

It’s because of these imbalances and biases, identified in many global studies, that we recommend organisations refresh talent management policies to reduce the potential for unconscious bias and actively seek diversity in talent pipelines.

We recently helped one large organisation in the infrastructure sector fine-tune its policies. While the firm has traditionally had a strong and progressive commitment to diversity, we found several opportunities to improve their policies to avoid unconscious biases narrowing their talent pool. In the case study below, we share some recommendations we made.

The upside for the organisation is that leaders are now more likely to attract talented people from diverse backgrounds, and keep them.

We found several opportunities to increase the use of inclusive language and avoid unconscious biases narrowing the talent pool.

Diversity Partners Case Study: Minimising bias in recruitment and HR processes / policies

Client industry: Infrastructure

The brief:

Analyse job descriptions, job advertisements and a wide range of people policies to identify potential areas of bias, increase the use of inclusive language, and widen the pool of potential candidates both applying for roles and successfully being hired.

The outcome:  

The review of both the job description template, as well as ‘live’ leadership roles being advertised online, identified a number of areas where bias could be reduced. Some of our findings included:

·       Inconsistent use of the job description template by recruiting managers, (which can lead to subjective hiring decisions for ‘cultural fit’ against the firm’s culture, skill and experience).

·       A heavy focus on technical capability in the majority of advertised leadership roles, without transparency on what weighting would be given to these skills over relationship or leadership skills (e.g. prerequisite, preferred or critical). This could potentially strike out good talent if hiring managers aren’t clear on the balance.

·       Only some job descriptions included an explicit mention of the company’s commitment to diversity, as well as the requirement of leaders to foster inclusion in their teams. We recommended this be added to all job descriptions, as well as mention of the firm’s commitment to a flexible working environment.

·       Wording such as ‘you’ll be required to manage a busy schedule and have to accommodate change and adjust arrangements accordingly’ was repeated in several position descriptions. This wording could deter candidates who have caring responsibilities or other out-of-work requirements from applying. Our recommendation was to modify wording to include a reference to flexible working options.

·       Several instances of gendered language in job descriptions, including terms such as ‘The role will require agility and the ability to think and perform based on competing demands and pressures’. An alternative was recommended: ‘The role will require agility in thinking to manage various elements such as timelines, budgets and stakeholder relationships’.

These are just a few of the recommendations we made to improve the use of inclusive language and reduce the potential for unconscious bias across all talent management policies.

If you’d like us to undertake a review of your policies, drawing on our learning from many recent client engagements and global best practice, please call us or email info@diversitypartners.com.au to talk through your needs.