Opinion

Idris Elba James Bond uproar highlights problem with unconscious racial bias

7 min read

22 September 2015

Sandra Kerr OBE, race equality director at Business in the Community, highlights the furore around Idris Elba playing James Bond as an example of how unconscious racial bias can slip into recruitment.

Recently, the author Anthony Horowitz commented that Idris Elba is ‘too street’ to be James Bond. Irrespective of Elba’s ability to play the part, these opinions are indicative of our expectations of such an iconic character – we imagine 007 to look a certain way, and it can be challenging to our perceptions when he doesn’t.

The same can be applied to recruitment; we expect new recruits to look a certain way. Business in the Community’s 2014 Gender and Race Benchmark shows that this expectation is impacting the recruitment of ethnic minority candidates.

We found a significant gap between BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) and white candidates’ application to hiring rates. BAME 16-24 year olds are also more likely to be unemployed than white young people, and are under-represented in apprenticeships and on graduate schemes.

This not only means there is a disproportionate lack of BAME employees at entry level in many sectors, but also reduces the pool of BAME candidates to pick from when progression or leadership opportunities arise – not helped by the fact that BAME candidates are less likely to be rated as ‘high potential’ in appraisal processes.

To find out the reasons behind this situation, Business in the Community is currently running the UK’s biggest ever survey of race at work. The survey is open until 13 September via http://www.raceatwork.org.uk, and is open to BAME and white employees aged 16 or over – please do take part and share the link with your networks.

One factor could be unconscious bias, where we hold a positive or negative view of a certain group of people without realising it. Everyone has unconscious bias, but the challenge is when it affects recruitment.

Unconscious bias is not just applicable to race – it can also include age, disability or gender. Individuals may unconsciously recruit people who look, think and act in a similar way to them, leading to an atmosphere of ‘groupthink’, rather than the innovation and diversity that is needed for organisations to compete in a global business environment with the dynamic creativity and diversity in talented teams needed to be effective and responsive.

It’s often assumed unconscious bias will disappear as retiring senior leaders are replaced with younger, more open-minded employees. In fact, our research suggests the opposite.

Working with the University of Manchester’s Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity to analyse data from the Implicit Association Test*, we found that 70.1 per cent of UK 18-24 year olds had unconscious racial bias – more than any other age group. This finding strongly suggests that addressing unconscious bias within younger recruits needs serious attention from employers.

Our research also shows unconscious racial bias is common in many sectors, from the military, food service, transport and engineering, to arts and education. Although this does not necessarily imply that these sectors or people working in them are inherently racist, it does mean conscious effort is required to ensure that workplaces across all sectors are not excluding candidates or employees and that they have truly inclusive cultures for all employees within their organisations.

Britain is becoming increasingly diverse – we have more women in work than ever before, one in five of the UK population will come from a BAME background by 2051, and the rising state pension age means more people are working for longer. 

Employers must ensure they harness all the talent available to them, regardless of age, gender or ethnicity, and develop recruitment and progression processes that are equal, inclusive and open to all employees.

Here are our top tips to do just that:

1. Introduce mandatory unconscious bias training for all staff involved in recruitment, with a focus on race and gender, and ensure this is regularly refreshed. Make sure training covers all aspects of the recruitment process and that it is undertaken by external agencies and internal employees.

2. Ensure you have diverse recruitment panels, where ethnic minority people, women and older workers are included at each stage of recruitment, assessment and promotion processes where possible.

3. Set and publish recruitment targets for diversity – and ensure that senior leaders are held accountable for achieving them. Make external recruitment agencies aware of these targets too.

4. Measure and monitor recruitment of women, ethnic minorities (segmented by ethnicity where possible) and older workers at each stage of the process. Use this data to identify gaps and barriers in your recruitment processes and ensure they are accessible to everyone.

5. Use a variety of recruitment channels to reach the widest possible talent pool. This could include adding images of employee diversity to literature and websites, looking outside the traditional ‘milk round’ universities and showcasing the variety of roles within sectors (such as the recent #ilooklikeanengineer Twitter campaign).

6. Extend apprenticeships to employees of all ages, including older workers looking to retrain.

7. Clearly communicate flexible working where possible. This is something that older workers, as well as men and women, are looking for in future employers.

8. Encourage employees to take part in Business in the Community’s race at work survey, which is open until 13th September at http://www.raceatwork.org.uk

Sandra Kerr OBE is race equality director at Business in the Community

*The Implicit Association Test is an online test designed to help individuals understand their unconscious bias. The data reflects 2.5 million participants across the UK, the US and 17 Western European nations.