It has been reported that many businesses across the United Kingdom are struggling to recruit the staff they need. At the same time older workers and those workers with disabilities or long-term conditions are underrepresented in the work force. By way of example, the employment rate for disabled people in the UK is 28% lower than for non-disabled people.
The recruitment and retention of employees involves many stages where a range of unconscious/implicit biases can enter decision making processes. There are many key decision points in the process that involve choosing among potential candidates, such as choosing who to interview, who to hire, who to promote, and, on occasion, who to fire. This is especially likely to be the case in small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) who don’t have dedicated Human Resource departments or budgets for engaging in equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) activities. Unconscious bias can even be present in job descriptions and roles, influencing who applies in the first place.
While attitudes towards race and gender have both been studied in workplace and employment settings, the disability IAT (implicit association test) has not yet been examined specifically with a cohort from the business community. We also collected responses to an age IAT from the same community to explore the attitude towards recruitment of older people within SMEs; the first to look at a potential effect of firm size on implicit bias.
The purpose of our research has been to generate a better understanding of some of the challenges and opportunities facing employers in creating inclusive places to work, particularly for people who are over 50, disabled, or have a long-term health condition.
Background to our research
Our research was carried out in Cornwall, selected because it is similar to the national average and has a population shift that will be emulated across Britain’s cities in the next decade.
Cornwall’s levels of bias are consistent with elsewhere in the UK. Our work brought together research from the European Centre of Environment and Human Health at the University of Exeter in collaboration with partners disAbility Cornwall and Age UK Cornwall and Isles of Scilly.
In addition to surveying more than 100 businesses, we used the Implicit Association Test (IAT), a tool established in 1998 at Harvard University for measuring implicit attitudes and beliefs to reveal an individual’s hidden or subconscious biases. The UK Equality and Human Rights Commission says the test is “effective at raising awareness of unconscious bias”.
The IAT is the most popular method for measuring implicit attitudes, and gives a measure of (positive or negative) implicit associations towards a particular group of people based on reaction times in assigning various stimuli (e.g. pictures of disabled and non-disabled people) together with positive or negative stimuli (i.e. good and bad words).
Our research found substantial levels of implicit bias against both disabled people and older people