30 May 2022
by James Corcoran

Overcoming unconscious bias

James Corcoran, Head of Recruitment at Sanderson Government & Defence shares his equality, diversity and inclusion learnings.

Chikere Igbokwe, Sanderson's wonderful ED&I Consultant starts by saying, “candidates face bias due to their gender, sexuality, race, and other aspects of their identity”, a simple statement with a huge deal of knowledge and experience behind it.

I’m a white, middle class, privately educated British male, an early memory was my mother telling me how lucky I was to be born that way, perhaps she was ahead of her time given that was many, many years ago.

The first exercise we were asked to carry out during our training session with Chikere was to close our eyes and imagine running late for a flight, you run down the terminal, across the air bridge and onto the plane just in time, the pilot steps out of the cockpit and says “hello”. Describe the pilot…therein lies a determiner of unconscious bias.

Scope of unconscious bias

What I had not realised was the scope and effect of this unconscious bias, gender, beauty, affinity, confirmation, attribution, conformity, halo and horns effect.

An example utilising the above could be, and this is certainly something I am now very conscious of.

You are recruiting for a role and meet someone you instantly warm to (are they like you? Affinity), they shake your hand with a firm grip and stand tall like you (attribution bias), however when you go and get them a water, a colleague suggests they are not ‘our usual type’ of hire which plants doubt in your mind (conformity bias), you remember you saw a role on their CV where they had stayed for less than six-months, your first thought is that something sinister had happened, you wait to discuss this period to confirm your suspicions (confirmation bias). The challenge is that’s it’s all by definition ‘unconscious’.

So, how do we overcome this?

Sanderson's journey to gender parity

Firstly, it’s worth noting that just five years ago we knew we had to address our diversity positively in our Recruitment headcount in Sanderson Government & Defence, now we are 50/50 gender diverse and have quadrupled in size, we are also neurodiverse and aspire to be significantly more ethnically diverse.

The simple way we have done this is that we first stage interview anybody who has the relevant skills, being the ability to communicate effectively and the desire to succeed, these are our core skills as recruiters. Everybody is then analysed against those specific traits. Anybody who achieves this milestone is then second interviewed by two members of our team, not Senior Management but by a Team Leader and a New Starter. Three opinions are then combined to determine whether the individual is successful or not. We think the blend of opinions and hiring of people who hold the skills we can’t teach and the will to learn the things we can teach, provides accessibility to our business. This approach has led to an increase in representation across gender, ethnic and neurodivergent individuals within our business with positive results.

Continuously learning and growing

Add to that the work we are doing with Chikere, which is in effect wider than unconscious bias and into the full diversity environment we are continuously learning. By having monthly sessions over 12 months for the whole team, it keeps topics such as unconscious bias at the top of our minds. In fact, I write this almost one calendar month after this training session and it is as fresh as the day we covered it.

The objective has been to raise awareness within the business, improve colleague behaviour and improve our recruitment best practice. The result has been a leap forward culturally, far greater awareness of all aspects of ED&I and staff having the confidence and safety to speak out. Furthermore, ED&I is included in all team members monthly objectives and a key agenda point for our senior management meetings.

The best way to learn is through repetition, goals/milestones/stats don’t work. Instead, learn, do, repeat and revisit, that way I feel we are on a positive journey to improve and practice what we preach.


James Corcoran

James Corcoran

Head of Recruitment, Sanderson

With 17 years of recruitment experience, James leads the core recruitment team for Sanderson Government & Defence, specialising in technology and business change for the government security cleared sector. Passionate about closing the skills gap by providing accessible careers for all, James joined the techUK Skills & Diversity Council 2.5 years ago to learn from best in class industry peers and help drive positive change in the tech sector.