Episode 1

Unconscious Bias in Hiring Decisions

In this episode, Chris interviews Riham Setti to discuss how organisations can use AI to increase diversity and inclusivity in the workplace and help, eliminate bias in hiring decisions.

About my guest

Riham Satti is a keynote international speaker, neuroscientist and entrepreneur. She co-founded MeVitae in 2014; deep tech company aimed at solving the biggest recruitment challenges, aimed at removing algorithmic and unconscious biases from the hiring process. Riham is involved in several initiatives; founder of Linkedin’s Women in Tech group, director at TechTonic, TechUK Diversity and Skills Council. She has expertise in the science of HR and human decision-making. She is a business mentor including the London Business School entrepreneurship course (helping over 20 early-stage founders who have raised over £1m+). Riham holds a Master of Research in Clinical Neuroscience from the University of Oxford and a First-Class Honour Master of Engineering in Biomedical Engineering from Imperial College London.


podcast transcription

Chris: Welcome to Oven-Ready, HR. This is the podcast that aims to demystify and deconstruct the best HR practices, for startup and SME sector. This week’s episode considers how organisations can increase diversity and social mobility within the workforce. By applying concepts such as blind hiring to hiring processes.

My guest this week is Riham Satti. Riham is a keynote international speaker, neuroscientists and entrepreneur. She co-founded MiVitae in 2014, the deep tech company aimed at solving the biggest recruitment challenges aimed at removing algorithmic and unconscious biases from the hiring process. Riham is involved in several initiatives: she’s the founder of LinkedIn’s women in tech group, director of Techtronic, Tech UK diversity and Skills Council. She has expertise in the science of HR and human decision-making. 

She’s a business mentor, including the London Business School entrepreneurship course and has helped over 20 early-stage founders and they’ve raised collectively over a million pounds. Riham holds a master of research and clinical neuroscience from the University of Oxford and the first-class honour master of engineering and biomedical engineering from Imperial College London. I can’t think of anybody more interesting and actually more qualified to talk about this.

Welcome, Riham. How are you doing? 

Riham: Thanks for that. Very well. 

Chris: Yeah. All good. Thank you all good. right. So you’re on a mission to create an ecosystem where everyone should have a job that they love and the position that they feel challenged and valued and where organisations can hire the right people.

First time round, how close do you think we are to this holy grail? 

Riham: I don’t think where there yet, there’s a lot of research that shows how the percentage of people are disengaged in the workforce. There’s lots of different types of this research and the numbers are quite alarming. I think there was at least what I saw was 24% of employees are disengaged in their job.

So that means that we’re nowhere near it. Right. and it’s, I think the challenge is really is when we think of jobs, you think of it as a task? Right? We think of it as not a career, but a job. And what we really need to do is make sure that people are in jobs that they absolutely love and that they, they feel like they’re contributing, right.

Creating, innovating, and being a part of something and clearly with kind of these stats, showing, that an alarming number of people are not engaged in their workforce and their jobs. We’re still far from it. 

Chris: Do you think it’s a generational thing? Do you think those younger employees do you think then they feel much more engaged in it’s actually much more important to them, whereas perhaps someone, you know, later on in their career, it doesn’t really matter.

They don’t really care. What do you think? 

Riham: I believe there are different criteria that are of importance for different generations, right? Generation Z, for example, the whole need for a diverse and inclusive workforce is much more important for them. For example, I’ll give you an illustration of that. I read an article the other day that says.

Over 60% of candidates, generation Z and millennials like their resumes to be redacted so that they feel like they’re being judged on their skills and competencies. So the agendas that organisations have, or not the organisations that the candidates have for certain generations are very, very important.

It’s no longer about money and salaries. but creating an importance, creating, an environment, a culture that candidates feel like they thriving and there are different generational differences to that. 

Chris: And you think there, obviously there are some key employees that I think we probably all know of that, that, you know, very much have that model and use that and that’s, that’s a key reason, obviously why they have a, you know, a fantastic talent pool or people that wish to work for them. Do you think that let’s say, and I think they are typically American, you know, very well known technology firms, where do you think we are in the UK compared to let’s say that sort of Silicon Valley feel?

Riham: Whoa, that’s a great, a good question. Actually. It depends what we’re using as a criteria of success. So, Yes. Organisations are traditionally candidates resolve for generation Z. Millennials want to work for the big, big tech companies. Right. and you know, that’s because they are larger. They’re well known and they’ve, they have got an established brand, but then now is becoming more of a war of talent, between startups scale-ups and big corporates.

Right. people feel that they’re contributing more. if they’re part of a smaller team, right. A more dynamic pressure teams. So the agendas before right. Are completely different to what they are now. and there is this kind of debate of what do candidates prefer to do and what’s their ideal move.

but I think right now there’s a big shift and a big dynamic change where we were many years ago, decades ago. When, yes, it was, you know, people want to work for big corporates, but now it’s starting to change and adapt. the smaller organisations these scale-ups, these startups are starting to push as well and they can contribute. 

Chris: Exciting time if you are looking now, you’re, you’re, you’re beginning to enter the workforce.

I, you know, and I think as you say that the values of, of millennials and generation Z that, I mean, it’s, it’s a completely different mindset and I think is a really positive thing you know, and I think that then that’s also, I think shaping organisational culture for the better. And I applaud that.

I think that’s a really good, really good thing. Moving on to a little bit too artificial intelligence and you use, and this sort of excites me and it concerns me in equal measure perhaps it has to do with my age. I don’t know. I did have a talent business, a while ago and I think a lot of my most successful hires, really, were I think I, you know, really convinced the client that they should see this candidate. And there was a real gut feel on my part and I thought, if you don’t see this person you’re going to miss out on, I really believe that. And I put my reputation on that and I’d say, look, if you think I’m an absolute madman, then you know, don’t use me again but I think you should see this person.

In terms of, you know, using algorithms and. AI technology. Do you think that will prevent that from happening a bit, that gut feel?

Riham: At the moment AI is, is not there to replace people. So that element of gut-feeling will always remain because there’s always a human element to it.

The problem is with gut-feeling and intuition, it’s, it’s the way our brains processes information. We’re constantly comparing incoming sensory information with current experiences against previous knowledges, experiences, memories. And we have to try and use our brain to predict outcomes on the back of that.

And therefore that it seems that intuition, gut-feelings are more of an automatic, fast processing, right? And that’s where we fall prey to these kind of cognitive biases that our brains have. And therefore very hard to have, have a gut-feeling. Without some form of bias. And when you add AI on top of it, right, you have to try and mitigate for these, these cognitive biases, but you also have to make mitigate to these algorithmic biases that keep it , creep in as well.

Therefore, using AI and using machines doesn’t necessarily mean that gets rid of gut-feelings, and we’re going to have less of it because there’s always going to be a human element to it. But what we can do is try and postpone these biases as long as possible, right? So that we don’t rely on these automatic, fast processing of information our brain has to go through and therefore we can try and make more of a judgment on more reasoning and more statistical analysis. Do we try and minimise these algorithmic biases that come up with analysing data as well? 

Chris: Do you think of unconscious bias is always a bad thing? I mean, can bias be good at the same time?

I’m just thinking of this, these, these, you know, these experiences that I had, And perhaps I probably wasn’t actually biased, but I was, but I was using it as a positive measure because I wanted to get this person in to see this client. And she didn’t have the normal background that they would have wanted you know, she was joining a financial services firm and she came from a retail background, high street retail but I just knew that she was right. I just knew that she was, you know she’s a superstar and she did everything that I think they would want have wanted.

So that’s my question is, is it always bad? 

Riham: So that’s an interesting thing. So what the flip-side is, so let me, the candidate you thought was absolutely really ideal, right? And he thought. He would be perfect for this organisation and in that case, he tried to use it as a positive action, but then like what happens to the other candidates that didn’t make it through?

Why didn’t they make it through? So there’s always going to be a flip side to it. So it’s very hard to say if it’s going to be used for positive or negative because there’s always going to be two sides to that story .  What I can say is that we will always have cognitive biases and they’re based on our experiences, our knowledge, our judgements, et cetera.

And these cognitive biases will impact every step of our decision-making. Some biases are faster than others. some biases creep in and, more prominent for people more than others. So how do you try and reduce some of these biases? Are you being aware and accepting of biases?

Establishing criteria is when making decisions, all of those things, try to help reduce the reliance on kind of gut instincts. I can say that they’re skewed one way or another. It’s very tricky to tell. 

Chris: Okay. Okay. I mean, I’ve done some unconscious bias training and I think that the key takeaway that I had from that was, is to pause and to just give yourself a tiny bit of reflection and to say, what are my motives for making the decision that I have just arrived at?

And I think that’s really what, what I took away from that. It’s just that you need to give yourself just that little bit more time and go, am I really, is that, what are my motives? Let me just double-check that actually that is what I was thinking. Would you agree with it? 

Riham: Yeah, I completely agree with that because it then gives that slowing down.

Right. Slow down. Think about and taking a step back, right. We’re making decisions and not relying on these bots and automatic processing and relying on that kind of gut instinct. So I completely agree with that. 

Chris: Okay. You’ve done a lot of work with applicant tracking systems and you’re rather turning this on this, on its head.

These are the bane of, of many candidates lives in terms of the hiring process. What can you tell me about that? 

Riham: Yeah, so traditionally in an ATS application tracking system helps organisations manage the hiring processes. All the candidates who have applied, where they land in your ATS, how you run through the different stages of the hiring process screening or shortlisting interviewing, et cetera.

And we have this kind of traditional process, but it helps you manage that. However, when you’re trying to increase diversity and inclusion, that sense of equality and belonging in an organisation, it’s very hard to do that when you have a standard ATS. Right? So what our stance is. Why can’t we just adapt ATSs or application tracking systems to try and make it much more tailored and focused on having a DNI approach?

Because our aim at MeVitae is how do you buy as hiring processes every step of the way, as much as possible, whether it be us, would redacting or the machines redacting identifies within resumes with a screening candidates finding more diverse candidates. It’s very hard to break patterns and habits, but it takes longer to create ones.

So our approach is why can’t we do what we’re currently doing, but use technologies to compliment that, to try de-bias processes and doing it through ATS it’s because traditionally that’s how companies are using that. They’re using it to hire. Sure. 

Chris: Sure. And, and how successful is this at the moment in terms of you finding clients that really understand what it is you want to do or what they should be doing?

Riham: Yeah, no, it’s, there’s been such a big spike, over 2020, the organisations are realising the importance of DNI. It’s no longer a tick box exercise and bias training yes creates a sense of awareness, however, we need to be able to use science and technology and data to try and increase, DNI within organisations.

And it’s becoming a real USP and a competitive advantage for organisations. So more and more. companies are approaching us going I heard you can help with DNI. You know, we’ve seen the results that you’ve just been able to generate. What can we do with our ATS to try and make it more inclusive and try and help move that dial.

And it really does come from the top. It has to come from senior management, C-suite execs because that’s where kind of the power lies and the ability to create that change. But over the past, I would say, year, or especially during the past six months, the BLM protests, et cetera, has really started to move the dial and organisations looking at new ways to try and increase, especially gender and ethnicity, diversity within their organisations is, you know, if you know, there’s so many benefits attached to it and it’s become it’s beginning to become the norm to be more diverse and inclusive, it’s no longer going to be the exception.

I think that’s a 

Chris: fantastic positive move. And do you think that’s been driven as you say, by sort of me too movement BLM, those sorts of, you know, global, global movements, which have really, really, you know, got people, absolutely thinking and actually questioning where they should be? 

Riham: Yeah. I, I think it comes in waves to be honest, a couple of years ago, this debate about DNI was also kicking in and again, the protests really did put things into gear, and because it’s, we need to see there needs to be action. Right? the traditional ways of trying to tackle DNI, the bias training, for example, that relies on association, tests, quotas or targets. Stuff like that has created a sense of discussion. But what we need to see is, is this kind of sense of action, actual numbers, changing and adapting.

And whenever there is a wave or a trigger that creates that there’s a spike in activity and what we need to do is now make sure that it’s maintained and that organisations are realising more and more the importance of having a fair and inclusive hiring process, find organisations to try and give them an advantage, right?

Companies are much more successful, right? there was a report by McKenzie that said that organisations, there was an increase in kind of bottom line in terms of sales and revenues. The potential is immense. It’s a no brainer now. It’s now we just need to make sure that it’s across the board 


Chris: you think there are sectors that really do champion this?

I mean, I think, you know, from, from, from sort of stuff I’ve seen recently, I think professional services firms out of the big four accountancy groups, all of those they’re really, really hot on this aren’t they? 

Riham: Yeah, they are, and as well as tech companies as well, a lot of charters that I’ve seen in the tech space, a couple of them there’s the tech talent charter.

Lots of organisations have signed that and sharing some of the stuff that they’re dealing with within DNI, not just in the recruitment process, but beyond that as well. And other, identifiers in what are they doing with this disability, ethnicity, et cetera. There are areas or kind of hot pockets and it’s, it’s going to continue growing, right? Because they started to see the importance of this and, you know, the power of technology, the power of data, has really started to show why it’s important that we, we make sure we have organisations that are representative of the world.

Chris: Absolutely. And I think, interestingly, if you look at actually the boards now of, you know, you know, really well known organisations, there is much more inclusivity now and there is, you know, it isn’t so stale, male and pale as it used to be. You know, there’s a long way to go, obviously, but it does look better.

Riham: It does I completely agree and, you know, interestingly I think it was Starbucks that started tying their DNI metrics to like negative pays. It’s now about accountability and consequences for making sure that organisations are taking this seriously. And like you said, you know, boards starting to slowly move and, and become more diverse.

Goldman Sachs mentioned that they were only hoping to work with organisations that have brought at least a woman on board. It, it is becoming more and more important. and it’s, it’s gonna continue like that as 

Chris: well.

I just thought some of these boards, you know, it looked a bit like walking down the high street in a typical, you know, UK location and it just looked different to what it used to look.

And, you know, there are less sort of peers of the realm and Knights of the realm and it just, it looked and felt to me better that somehow there has been a bit of a step change and now it looks much more representative than it did. So, I mean, I, I’m a bit sort of big believer in blind hiring to create diversity and particularly social mobility. Because I think that’s really, really important. Now, given that, you know, all that’s gone on this year with, you know, obviously, you know, many children haven’t had a proper education this year because of COVID. And I think that, you know, it’s, it’s, I think education is the key to moving people, you know, to enable them to be much more mobile.

But what’s driven, you personally do think to be a champion of all this? 

Riham: Several angles. I would say the fairness is kind of the backbone of our organisation. I would say creating a sense of fairness in the world as much as possible, as well as a quality and that metrics, you know, meritocratic society, our team are academics or, and all love the power of science and technology, and being able to combine those two together to create change.

Yeah. It’s something that resonates with our entire team and within our organisations and on a personal level I pretty much tick most of the diversity boxes: female, disability, ethnicity. I tick most of them and it’s more about the best person to get the job, regardless of those factors, right? It’s giving people equality and an opportunity to be able to shine, finding those diamonds in the rough, because potential lies in everyone. And if we can make sure that people do enjoy, love the job that they have and on career and making sure that everyone’s thriving and doing the best they can.

Isn’t that a better society?  

Chris: One I’d much rather live in. 

Riham: Yes. 

Chris: I mean, it, it works for me. but obviously, it’s been, it’s been a real year in terms of so many different changes. And, do you think this is sort of also been the year of the scientist in a way because you know, we’ve all been following the science as it were, and I don’t think scientists have ever had such a high profile as they do this year.

Riham: Science is making a push isn’t it? There was an interesting illustration I saw I think it was from Tata. They had this graph and it showed kind of the foundations of the technology. So we have internet social, the emerging technologies, blockchain, AI, and there’s this kind of bifurcation process where there is a wealth of opportunity of, of sectors and industries, where are, which are growing, you know, generation Z, climate change all these very big topics everyone is talking about and technology is really becoming an accelerator of that and be able to solve some of these challenges that it might’ve taken us a lot longer to do. But it’s important to note that it doesn’t necessarily mean replacing people. Cause I’ve, I’ve got into this debate a few times where people think machines are going to take over the world and replace people.

It’s not about that. It’s about what I call it kind of augmented intelligence. How do you use a combination of people and machines together to build much more of an optimally integrated intelligence and really the science and technology and scientists have started to really kind of play a part in that.

And science has always been there. but it’s, it’s nice to see that it’s becoming more prominent.

Chris: I think it’s more, yeah, much more mainstream than it was. I mean, it’s come out of the lab somehow and it’s entered the mainstream. And I think that, again, that’s, that’s a positive move. Looking at the jobs market right now, obviously, there’s a lot of stories out there and there’s an awful lot of bad news with, you know, firms closing and people losing their jobs. And I think that you know, LinkedIn seems to be full of people that have gone to extraordinary lengths in which to try and find a new job, you know, standing at railway stations and handing out their CVs and wearing sandwich boards, that sort of thing, because there is always a power imbalance.

What do you think employers should do to maintain or at least to build a sort of employer of choice brand right now, when they actually really do have the upper hand?

Riham:  It was a candidate’s driven world wasn’t it and Covid has reversed it somehow. I’m always a fan of people who, who try things in a non-conventional way to grab employers attention. In fact, that’s kind of how we started. It was my co-founder who wanted to get a job at one of these big tech companies and didn’t go through the traditional routes and built kind of an app of his CV and put up on the windows store and before we knew it was climbing, about s50,000 download or so, and we’re always a fan of the non-traditional, creativity really has a place in the world, but it’s a matter of giving people all an equal chance, right. And to be able to thrive in those situations and being able to judge people, even if they’ve gone, down the non-traditional route of applying directly to their roles. So how do we? You know, people who use the, kind of the prove it model that, you know, I can show you what I do, and this is why we have things like Git Hub, for example, where more and more people are using that, or Behance to show their talent. There’s going to be new forms of being able to showcase the capabilities and potential we all have, and that’s going to become more and more prominent. But what we need to do is make sure that we somehow bake that in, into our processes and account for that.

There’s no direct answer, but I think. We need to move with the times, because more and more, that that is what’s going to happen. You know, people will still apply for roles using CVs using cover letters, et cetera. and people are also going to apply through LinkedIn.

Right? We’ve had to adapt. Now when people apply to roles through LinkedIn, we wouldn’t have thought about that many, many years ago but we’re adapting. So when you can keep doing that and making sure that we have processes in place to account for those, and that’s the really important thing and making sure we judge people based on that talent and that ability and making sure that everyone gets an equal chance in 

Chris: doing that. 

Okay. Okay. So which I think leads me on really to my sort of last point was, you know, as I said, my talent, my hiring background, I think. If I, if I’d had a pound for every time that someone said, you know, he or she is not the right cultural fit, I think I’d be, you know, I would obviously have retired by now.

Riham: We’d all be rich wouldn’t we?

Chris: Yeah, exactly, exactly. But you know it, and I think to be honest with you, a lot of organisations use it because they couldn’t really think of anything else to say. And then obviously it just didn’t click on that particular interview. But if someone isn’t your culture or isn’t a cultural fit, do you think that actually, you should look at them again and maybe you should challenge your unconscious bias and think, well, maybe, maybe they aren’t the classic person for us. They aren’t, they don’t look like everybody else. They don’t sound like everybody else. And they have a different background to everybody else.

Isn’t that a positive?

Riham: So cultural fit a really interesting one and I’d be the same as well, if I’d got a pound for everyone that said cultural fit as well, the challenge is, is cultural fit is, is hard to define, right? How do you… organisations have a culture of certain values that are very, very important to them when hiring.

Chris: Well it’s the way we do things around here is the simple definition isn’t it?

Riham: Today that sense, those values, these foundations behind every organisation – curiosity, innovation, right? That manifests itself in different people in different forms. And when we’re saying cultural fit it’s we don’t know what we have to define what that means. How do we make sure that when someone says they don’t have cultural fit, what do they mean?

At the moment we, we sometimes do rely on these kinds of bigger terms, right? The curiosity, et cetera to be able to say that. But how do we use things such as statistical approaches to defining what good looks like in an organisation? How do we define what skills and competencies are important to the organisation?

What are these kinds of behavioural frameworks that are, that define this fit? Because you can find people of different ethnicity that still have, those values. You can find people with different sexualities that fit those values. But what we need to do is make sure we define what those values are as clear as possible…

Chris: Who defines them. Do you think? 

Riham: I think there’s multiple people need to define that together we’ve done some analysis looking into how organisations currently look at how they hire and what they consider the most successful employees are in the organisation and why they consider themselves to be successful.

There are of course some patterns that you can identify and pick up and say that there are some commonalities there between organisations, but what we need to do is making sure that it’s broad enough and it doesn’t limit the ability to hire people that are diverse thoughts and creativity, et cetera. Because as soon as you start screening out and then you start saying cultural fit, right? So what we need to do is make sure we use different approaches, statistical approaches, speaking to people in the organisations to try and measure what that is. What good looks like and there are, there’s already stuff that companies can do within their, their ATS’s within their datasets. What past hiring that they’ve done to try and figure out where biases could lie and where there are opportunities to define what that fit is and making sure then after that, that your processes and when screening applicants account for, for those kinds of different mindsets, and making sure that you’re not relying on kind of subjective things.

Chris: It’s all in the data, right? 

Riham: Yeah. It’s all in the data. As long as we send the data, I’ll say 

Chris: Brilliant Riham, that’s been brilliant. Thank you ever so much for, for taking part in, in our podcast this afternoon. So, anything else you, you want to cover? 

No, I think that’s it. I think thanks for your time.

Really appreciate it. And I hope this just shows to organisations that diversity is becoming more and more important as well as a sense of equality and belonging. 

Well, I think I couldn’t have spoken to anybody better, so, thank you very much, indeed.

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