The Blog

Is Unconscious Bias Impacting Our War on Talent?

Yes, I am 'young' compared to my peers. And I also look even younger- great for my personal life, but adds to the complexities of my professional life, as my appearance is often at odds with my responsibilities and raises eyebrows.

'I shouldn't be telling you this, but it's because you are too young. She's worried about the reaction from the team you would be managing, who are all older. I'm really sorry'

This was the explanation I was once given from a recruitment agency after being unsuccessful for an HR Manager role. Was I disappointed? Yes. Was I gobsmacked? Sadly, no. Bias regarding my age versus what I could offer had become part of working life- a continuous battle to challenge people's preconceptions.

Yes, I am 'young' compared to my peers. And I also look even younger- great for my personal life, but adds to the complexities of my professional life, as my appearance is often at odds with my responsibilities and raises eyebrows. There is rightful focus in the UK on eradicating older age discrimination, but I believe younger age discrimination is also a real issue that deserves discussion.

Have I proved people wrong in the face of bias? I hope so. Being strategic about my career moves, taking all development that I could possible resource, having fantastic mentors, and carefully selecting companies that share my values have all had a part to play; alongside determined focus and good old hard work. I'm fortunate enough to have found an innovative, forward-thinking organisation that puts faith in rising talent, and I'm delighted that, a week before my 30th birthday, I started an interim role as UK HR Director for a medium sized insurance firm.

However, unconscious bias is hard to escape- even from myself. I still feel I need to dress sharper than the culture requires, to look 'the part'. I spend a huge amount of time focussed on my voice and body language, to be authoritative enough to get my message across. And I feel I have to deliver twice as much, twice as quickly, to make up for a lack of years in the industry and maintain credibility with my colleagues.

So, what is the USP of the millennial worker? I believe there are two. Conditions have changed in the employment market which affects the mind-set and skill of younger people, making them hugely valuable to organisations. Here's why:

1. They're constantly building their brand.

After the 2008 recession, Millennials do not expect job security, nor value it in a potential job offer. Millennials are entrepreneurs; they are their own brand and business, moving from role to role, gathering critical skills, achievements and experience to add to their toolkit and make them marketable. The learning curves are steeper than ever. The variety of industries and roles the average Millennial will experience in the first ten years of work hugely increases their commercial awareness and broader view of business. They are protecting their future careers by proactively developing their best product- themselves. And in my opinion, this is making Millennials get better, quicker. Will they be with you forever? Unlikely. Will they have an outstanding impact on your business for a couple of focussed years? Definitely.

2. They have a steely determination to win.

One thing that the recession has taught Millennials is resilience. Jobs are fewer and harder to achieve. Degrees are less valuable than they once were. Rejection is common. To succeed, you have to be the best; to secure a job interview, to get the job, and then to impress enough in the job that you are not booted out for a better candidate waiting in the wings. There's no easy option, no luck- there is only hard work. As the golfer Jerry Barber said in the 60's, 'The harder I practice, the luckier I get'. Millennials know how to perform, because there's no choice. They're tough cookies. And as businesses continue to face changes and challenges, resilient employees become a significant commodity.

Do I think younger people have more value that older workers? Absolutely not. Why someone is right for a role is dependent on so many factors. Experience can have huge advantages of advanced learning and opportunities that make a better candidate- however, the same level of experience can be gained in 2, 5 or 10 years, depending on the skills you are collecting during that period. It's how you use the time, not the time itself.

What I do believe is that when hiring, the focus should be on the character, capability and raw talent of the individual- not number of years served. Simply put: the best person for the job.

So to everyone in the labour market, regardless of age- don't accept limitations others set for you.

And to hiring managers- please be brave enough to leave all age bias at the door. Your business will thank you for it.