File photo courtesy: Unsplash/Punttim

Outcome bias occurs when an individual judges an act solely on the outcome, and not the quality of the decision.

Critics argue it’s a flawed process that can lead to bad decisions because it zones in on the effect without analyzing the cause.

A recent paper by researchers at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) suggests some managers may be falling victim bias, resulting in undeserved promotions.

“[This] could mean that those who do not have the skills to do the job are promoted, while those with talent go unrecognized,” says study co-author and (UTS) economics Professor Lionel Page.

Researchers analyzed European football matches and logged more than 10,000 shots at a goal that hit a goal post. They found that getting a goal off the post was due to random luck rather than skill.

Players who scored “lucky” goals were granted “significantly more” field time than “unlucky” players and received higher ratings from fans and journalists. 

“Lucky” goals were especially beneficial to up-and-coming players and in situations where the goal was critical to winning the match.

“We found clear evidence that luck was overly influencing managers’ decisions and evaluators’ ratings of footballers, and this tendency is likely to be widespread in business and other fields,” Page says.

“If you get bias in a situation like the football pitch, where a player’s actions are highly scrutinized and there is a huge amount of data, then it is likely to be pervasive in the workplace, where there is much less information.”

Page is calling on hiring managers to account for outcome bias when evaluating performance and to pay attention to long-term skill patterns.

“In the workplace, outcomes are important, but they are also imperfect. Unfortunately, outcomes are very observable, whereas processes are more difficult to assess.”

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Unconscious bias and the hiring process

The study’s findings could have widespread implications for minority applicants, given that previous research has revealed unconscious bias in the hiring process.

A July paper from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania found that minority candidates with 4.0 GPAs who apply for jobs in STEM fields are treated the same as white male candidates with 3.75 GPAs.

For their paper, business economics and public policy professors Judd B. Kessler and Corinne Low and doctoral student Colin D. Sullivan asked hiring managers to knowingly review and rate 40 fake resumes. Attention was given to the employer’s interest in a particular candidate, as well as how likely the managers thought they would be able to recruit the individual (i.e., their ‘get-ability.’)

The ratings from the fake resumes were then used to match the companies with real candidates from a database of authentic CVs from University of Pennsylvania students.

Employers hiring in humanities and social science-related fields did not rate female and/or minority candidates lower-than-average, but STEM recruiters rated them “significantly” lower. The paper’s authors credit the discrepancy to unconscious bias.

A breakdown of the hiring managers used in the study was not provided, so it’s not clear if they were predominantly male or female. It’s also not clear if the people who reviewed the resumes were predominantly white.

The researchers say they hope the findings will help organizations identify and eradicate unconscious bias.