An Interview with Dan Robertson

18th January 2022

Dan Robertson is the Director of Vercida Consulting and has been a great friend to Marshall’s over the years, having helped us with the development of our inclusive recruitment course. He is a Diversity and Organisational Development specialist with plentiful experience across the public and private sector. At the end of last year, he sat down with Rubin, our lead on marketing, to chat about unconscious bias, inclusive recruitment and more. Check out the interview below:

Rubin: So, to start with, can we talk about inclusive recruitment – in the course that we worked on with you there is a section which talks about reducing bias in the selection in the process. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Dan: Sure, before we talk about that, it is probably important to define what unconscious bias is. Humans have a neurological default position, that means we are neurologically and socially wired to hang out with people who are like us – people who look like us, act like us and think like us. If somebody is like us, then we are more likely to make positive attributes towards them. If you take something like an interview process, if you have somebody who is in your in group, which can be based on your gender, ethnicity, or something else, you form an affinity bias on a subconscious. It doesn’t mean you dislike the other candidates, but you don’t have the same level of affinity.

When we think about the interview process, there are different stages. The first time you see a candidate is on a piece of paper, their CV, and there are things on there that your brain looks for that suggests whether this person is competent. Your brain is reading the CV and will start making assumptions based on things such as their age, level of education and their hobbies. Perhaps they have worked in one sector, which wouldn’t suit a different sector

Rubin: So, linking to that, can we talk a little bit about anonymous hiring. I know that some people would have something to say about it, they want to let an employer know what university they went to, or to let them know how old they are so they can show much experience they have had. How would you respond to someone who has that perspective?

Dan: The whole point of blind decision making is around allowing a space to focus on what you should focus on. If you take your role, for example in Marketing – I have no idea how old you are, so even if I knew your age, I’m not sure what information that would give me but your age. It wouldn’t tell me your skills and competencies. Sometimes it makes complete sense not knowing some information, for example, age, ethnicity. There might be other contexts, where knowing something about someone might be useful.

If you take a graduate programme, and I have two graduates in front of me, and one has a first-class honours from University of Oxford, but I know that there social background is white, middle class, and I have another candidate who got a first class honours from a different university, from a working class background, that might indicate something to me – maybe the one from the working class background has had to work a little bit harder, and has shown resilience.

Blind decision making has its place, but shouldn’t be a total reference point, it should be alongside things

Rubin: In the inclusive recruitment, you talk about the halo effect, something which I hadn’t heard before, for people who don’t know its where a candidate is particularly strong in one area, so you assume they are consistent across other areas. How do you think that can be avoided in the recruitment process, surely someone who is good at communication for example, you might be inclined to give them the role?

Dan: If you said to me, “Dan I have great experience in marketing”, I would say give me an example of something you have worked on. Evidence is a way to mitigate our biases, and it can mediate the Halo effect. It’s one of the prominent forms of biases, so it’s quite difficult to control it. The more we drill down and look at examples, and not look assumptions

Rubin: I also think sometimes with skills, some managers will value some skills a lot more than other skills which might be more relevant to the job

Dan: Definitely, some managers might value people who are sociable. For example, you might assume an extrovert is better at stakeholder management, but this won’t always be the case. So, it is important that we don’t take the assumptions of how we think certain people will work in certain situations

Rubin: That’s interesting, I would have assumed the same, you want outgoing people for those kinds of roles, but obviously you don’t have to be outgoing to be good for the job

Dan: Exactly, there are many famous public speakers who are naturally introverts, and you would assume they are extroverts, but they’re not. They just get their energy back when they’re on their own

Rubin: Now this more of a question for my knowledge as I wasn’t sure, you talk about making the job positions are advertised for equal exposure. How do you go about that, and what does that mean, because surely if you place it on one general job advertising site, that will be applicable to all?

Dan: Potentially, but for example, if you take a job advert and put it on The Guardian, you basically are showing it to readers who are exposed to that advert – now, yes, we all love Guardian readers, but at the same time, you want to widen the net right? If you are gay, you might read adverts in certain magazines, or if you’re black you could put adverts in different community centres – so it’s not about one or the other, but it’s about expanding the reach as much as possible – maximum exposure is key for diversity.

Rubin: I guess that signals that they are welcome to apply

Dan: Exactly, signals that you thought about them, so if you put an advert in the voice magazine – it signals to black communities that you considered them, and will increase the response rate

Rubin: Which is so important. Moving on from recruitment, but still within the realms of unconscious bias, do you think unconscious bias can come into the world of Hybrid Working, and if so, how?

Dan: It definitely can, if we go back to the halo effect – its hybrid by nature, let’s take the pandemic – some people don’t care about it so they are willing to go into work, and certain people want to stay home because they have older parents or children to look after. The problem here is the inconsistencies of human behaviour, human beings have out of sight, out of mind mentality – for example, imagine this as a scenario, Rubin you haven’t been to the office in 2 weeks, whereas I have come in every other day. We start making assumptions about why it is you aren’t coming into the office – maybe, you don’t feel comfortable or vulnerable. Beyond the pandemic, maybe there are reasons that it is more practical for you to work in a more agile way. Whereas, I don’t have any other responsibilities and I can get into the office.

We have this thing where, we are close to somebody we form a positive relationship, whereas when we are distance, the relationship is less warm, and it’s that warmth that creates the affinity bias. I am a supporter of agile working, and I think it makes complete sense. It gives us freedom and more choice. So, the responsibility is on managers to make sure you are spending equal amounts of time with your colleagues. You must think “Who have I seen today, who have I not seen today, let me jump on a Zoom call”. The risks are about relationships, and they kick into things like development areas, and therefore progression routes. This can have knock on effects onto things like the pay gap – because, if you are closer to men for example, because they have less responsibility for things like childcare, they are more likely to be promoted. The dangers aren’t in agile working but the knock-on effects

Rubin: That makes, its more about the long-term effects

Dan: Exactly

Rubin: On a different note, I was on a webinar a few weeks ago and they said even something as trivial as someone’s background on a Zoom call – for example, if they have a bookshelf full of books behind them, or perhaps kids running around in the background, then you have a perception of them about who they are as a person, that can add to the unconscious bias. Now moving onto a different topic, some students at a university were required to do an Unconscious Bias test, and there was some backlash, saying that it shouldn’t be a requirement and that it was making them feel “personal guilt” – what do you think? Should it be a requirement, or should they be able to opt out?

Dan: I think, the question is “What are we trying to achieve?” – we are trying to create an environment which is fair and equal. The issue with any training that is seen as mandatory is that people don’t like it, and they question why they must do this thing. People think its about being politically correct and stuff like that, so what the evidence says, if you want the effectiveness of training – don’t make it mandatory, make it voluntary. There’s something called the backlash effect, if you are forced to go on a programme – you won’t engage with it and you probably see the whole thing as quite negative.

I don’t know anything about you Rubin, and if I said let’s talk about bias related race and gender; I don’t know what your level of bias is, because I haven’t tested you. You might have a low level of bias in relation to race and gender for example, but high level of bias related to disability, but I am bringing you on a programme with a low level, and you don’t need it. What I think is more effective, is offer students or colleagues an unconscious bias test, and do a test based on their needs. If you take the Harvard AIT, do you know what that is?

Rubin: I don’t actually

Dan: So, if you search Project Implicit, and its developed by Harvard, it’s a free test to measure your bias on different things. You end up getting a result, and you might have a low bias, which will mean you don’t need to go on a workshop, vice versa. Testing has its place to see whether people should go on a programme or not

Rubin: So how is the testing done, is it scenarios? How does it work?

Dan: You have sorting tasks, and what its doing is measuring how you match things. If you go back to unconscious bias, the way the brain works, it’s a pattern memory machine. Shall we play a memory game?

Rubin: Sure, let’s do it

Dan: Ok, so it’s just been Christmas so let’s play a word association game. I’ll go first – Christmas Tree

Rubin: Presents

Dan: Santa Claus

Rubin: Snow

Dan: Reindeers

Rubin: Elves

Dan: Family time

Rubin: Church

Dan: Ok cool, so you get the point. Now I am going to ask you some questions, what’s the capital of France?

Rubin: Paris

Dan: What’s the capital of Italy?

Rubin: Milan

Dan: It’s Rome

Rubin: (Laughing) Oh right, my bad

Dan: What’s the capital of Germany?

Rubin: Berlin

Dan: What’s 17 times 24?

Rubin: It’s –

Dan: Don’t worry, it’s 408. Right, so this shows neurons in your brain, that are connected, and we can answer these questions or associate those words quickly. You can’t do that with 17 times 24, because its not automatic. It’s the same issue with bias, do you associate positive images with for example, straight people over gay people, or men over women – that’s what the test is doing, measuring these patterns within the brain in relation to identity.

Rubin: That’s interesting, I’ll check that out for sure

Dan: It’s association, like you mentioned, if you see a bookcase behind me, you immediately associate it with something. They are often correct, but the issue is they are often incorrect too.

Rubin: So, playing into that, do you think its possible to completely get rid of a bias?

Dan: It’s impossible – you can control it, for sure – but you can’t change it. People can read you in a different way and make associations about you based on their own identity – but through exposure and education, we can relearn and unlearn the biases, and we can change the biases, you can change it from a negative to a positive bias

Rubin: So, you must actively do that

Dan: Exactly

Rubin: My next question is quite broad, and you don’t have to answer if you don’t think its relevant. How do you see the future of unconscious bias?

Dan: It will always have its place – people will always attack it. The problem with the criticisms of UB training, where people say that their company isn’t inclusive enough – of course it’s not, the training is one thing you can do, alongside a range of tools. If you don’t have a culture that values diversity, of course it won’t be enough. Unconscious bias training is an easy target

Rubin: Sure – I think we’re done today, you gave me lots of great content to work with. Is there anything else you want to add?

Dan: People can do lots of things to mitigate unconscious bias, just because you’re working against your biases, doesn’t mean you are promoting a culture that is inclusive. So, we must have dual strategy, which means active inclusion. Saying you’re not racist, doesn’t mean that you aren’t actively anti-racist. You have to do both things at the same time

Rubin: They come hand in hand – so what do you think about positive discrimination?

Dan: When you look at the data, life is unfair. The talent myth is that no matter who you are or where you come from, if you work hard and you’re ambitious, you can make it. I’ve done well in life, and I came from one of the worst schools in Nottingham – I am 1 in 1000 who have achieved what I have achieved, but there were so many barriers. So, I think it is important to recognise that inequality and discrimination does happen, then we should try and level of the playing field for sure.

Rubin: Do you think your background is the reason you have gone into this line of work?

Dan: I don’t know, I have always been interested in principles of inequality, but I think my background is a reminder of how inequality works. My friendship network is very diverse, from race to sexuality, and I think that is important because it stops you being in a bubble. If you only hang out with certain types of people who think the same, then you don’t understand what it means to be different. Coming from a background like mine, it gives perspective on these things

Rubin: We’ll finish on that note, thanks so much for your time, Dan

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