Unconscious Bias in Recruitment

February 4, 2022

“Unconscious bias is what happens when we act on subconscious, deeply ingrained biases, stereotypes, and attitudes formed from our inherent human cognition, experiences, upbringing, and environment”

In simple terms, our brains make rapid judgments about things, individuals or groups without us realising. These judgments are influenced by our own backgrounds and lived experiences and in turn influence the way we regard or behave towards that thing/individual/group, either positively or negatively.

There are various types of unconscious bias, for example:

  • Affinity Bias – a tendency to connect with others who share similar interests, experiences and backgrounds
  • Confirmation Bias – a tendency to search for and interpret new information which confirms pre-existing beliefs
  • Anchor Bias – a tendency to hold onto an initial, singular piece of information and base all future judgments on this, rather than assessing new information and potentially revising your judgment on that basis.

Human beings have evolved to use unconscious bias in every aspect of our lives and in many situations they were (and still are) useful; they are mental shortcuts which allow us to process information faster through prediction. However, in the 21st century unconscious bias in many scenarios will lead us towards prejudice, which is why it’s important to be aware of it and eliminate it as much as possible.

Side profile two men with thumbs up and thumbs down hand symbols inside head isolated on blue background

How does Unconscious Bias impact the hiring process?

“In the workplace, unconscious bias can stymie diversity, recruiting, promotion, and retention efforts. Left unchecked, biases can also shape a company or industry’s culture and norms”

Iris Bohnet, Director of the Women and Public Policy Program at the Harvard Kennedy School

Unconscious bias can kick in right at the beginning of the process, even before you advertise the role and receive applicants. The stakeholders in the hiring process (be that the Hiring Manager, HR, Recruiter etc) may set expectations based on intangibles which are susceptible to unconscious bias. “We definitely need someone who will ‘fit in’ with the team culture”… sound familiar? This is an example of affinity bias.

When advertising vacancies, language choice is important. We naturally associate certain words with certain traits. This can lend itself to unconscious biases like gender bias or age bias. For example, words like ‘independent’, ‘assertive’ and ‘analytical’ will often be perceived as masculine, whereas words such as ‘responsible’ and ‘conscientious’ are seen as feminine. Similarly terms like ‘high-energy’ or ‘go-getter’ will often be taken to mean ‘younger’, whereas “mature” or ‘experienced’ translates to ‘older’. This is something I have definitely been guilty of in some of my job ads, and something I will be changing moving forward.

When assessing CVs which contain the usual variety of traditional, personal information, we leave ourselves wide open to be influenced by a variety of different unconscious biases, including gender bias, name bias (e.g. a Nigerian or Irish surname may lead to racial basis) and class bias (e.g. having attended a private school).

Interviews are arguably the most at-risk stage of falling foul of unconscious bias. It can be affected by all of the above, plus attractiveness bias (we view attractive people as more competent and successful), confirmation bias (e.g. you were initially impressed by something on this persons CV so go into the interview looking for evidence that confirms your initial judgment), perception bias (basing our perception on overly-simplistic, usually incorrect stereotypes, for example a negative view of someone with lots of tattoos), and the halo effect (believing all of the candidates attributes are exceptional having already been impressed by one singular attribute, for example a degree from Harvard)

What can we do about it?

Given the examples above it is clear we need to take steps to eliminate unconscious bias from recruitment processes as much as possible. Here are some practical steps that can be taken.

Step 1 – Acceptance and awareness

We needs to accept that unconscious bias exists in all of us, and therefore be hyper-aware of when it is creeping into our decision-making processes. Question your assumptions – “do I think this about this person because of the evidence in front of me, or is it unconscious bias?”

Step 2 – revise job descriptions

Look to remove language that is inherently biased, like the examples above. Where this isn’t possible, look to strike a balance between words so that the overall message is neutral. For example, alternate between ‘build’ (masculine) and ‘create’ (feminine).

Step 3 – Blind CVs

By removing information like name and age from CVs you will limit unconscious bias and be more likely to judge CVs on their individual merits and suitability for the job on skills and experience alone.

Step 4 – standardising interviews

Unstructured, conversational interviews which flow and unfold organically are typically more enjoyable and relaxed for everyone involved, but unfortunately have been shown to be an unreliable predictor of job success. Structured interviews, whereby each candidate is asked the same list of questions and are assessed against pre-determined criteria, minimise bias and allow decision makers to zone in on the factors which will directly impact performance.

I think we are (thankfully) past the point of your traditional ‘competency questions’ which were en vogue a few years ago and encourage scripted, pre-rehearsed answers (“Give me an example of a time you’ve worked well in a team”), but putting some thought into what questions really matter and then giving every candidate the opportunity to demonstrate them is key.

Step 5 – work sample tests

As part of the assessment process set the candidates a task that directly mimics the requirements of the role. This could be analysing and reporting on a data set, giving a presentation, or producing a set of financial statements. In doing so you will be able to directly critique their work and ignore areas of unconscious bias.

Step 6 – consider likeability

Affinity bias means we will tend towards those we like and are similar to us, and this can be the hardest unconscious bias to steer away from. It’s important to decide beforehand whether this ‘likeability’ actually matters and whether it is important to you (particularly in some lines of work, e.g. those that are especially client-facing, you may not be able to disregard it completely). If it is, you could consider rating candidates for ‘likeability’ and standardising scoring for this criteria along with several others. Whilst not ideal, it does at least make it controllable.

Step 7 – Set diversity goals

D&I is high on the agenda for more and more companies, which is a step in the right direction. Setting diversity goals will place this front and centre when your business is hiring, which should help to eliminate unconscious bias against typically disadvantaged groups. However, there are a couple of notes of caution.

  • These diversity goals can be controversial as they are seen to undermine the ‘everyone is hired on merit alone’ philosophy, and can mean a backlash from groups that are traditionally in an advantageous position.
  • Make sure these goals are not token, but are a genuine step towards diversifying your workforce. There has been some high-profile controversy surrounding this recently, in allegations made by NFL Coach Brian Flores who says he was interviewed by the Giants only so they were in compliance with the NFLs ‘Rooney Rule’: https://es.pn/331hLts

In summary, it is clear that doing all you can to minimise unconscious bias and its influence on your hiring and recruitment practices will lead to a happier, higher performing, more inclusive, more diverse workforce.