Unconscious bias in recruitment: How can you remove it?

Christina Pavlou | |

There’s a lot of talk around diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Companies try to get rid of any form of discrimination from their hiring process. Some of them are actively looking to attract diverse candidates, e.g. by applying blind resume screening methods or by hosting female-only career days.

But what happens when the final hiring decision is distorted by unconscious bias? Could you be biased without even realizing it?

Science says yes. Our minds make decisions intuitively, before we’re aware of it. Research proves that, too; we’re not immune to implicit bias. We like to think that logical arguments drive our decision making, but in fact there’s unconscious activity going on inside our brains that affects our judgements and decisions. And this includes hiring decisions, too.

What unconscious bias means in recruitment

In the hiring process, unconscious bias happens when you form an opinion about candidates based solely on first impressions. Or, when you prefer one candidate over another simply because the first one seems like someone you’d easily hang out with outside of work. Even in the early hiring stages, a candidate’s resume picture, their name, or their hometown could influence your opinion more than you think. In short, unconscious bias influences your decision – whether positively or negatively – using criteria irrelevant to the job.

Is it really unconscious, though?

Matt Alder, HR thought leader and curator of the Recruiting Future podcast, observes that bias doesn’t always happen unconsciously: “I think there is probably some conscious bias going on when people are making decisions to employ people who think will fit in to their culture or adhere to the very similar people they’ve already got.“

Here’s a passage from the book ‘We Can’t Talk about That at Work!’ that describes a video being shown to a group of people:

A man and woman walk silently into the room, never speaking, and the woman walks in behind the man with her eyes looking slightly downward. The man is wearing shoes and the woman is barefoot. The man comes to a chair and sits down, and then the woman sits on the floor next to him. The man acts like he’s eating something from a bowl. He then passes the bowl to the woman, and she eats from the bowl. When she’s finished, the man puts his hand just above the woman’s bowed head – it looks as though he’s almost pushing her head up and down – though his hand never actually touches her head. Then, the man stands up and leaves first, and the woman leaves behind him.

Those who saw this video where then asked to describe it, and, more often than not, they used phrases such as ‘subservience’, ‘male dominance’ and ‘gender inequality’.
Do you want to know what really happens in this video, though?

In the scene you just saw, the woman and the Earth are actually the two most sacred and revered aspects of their specific culture, so much so, that only the woman is holy and good enough to sit on the ground and touch it with her feet. Men can only experience the Earth through the woman. The man is charged with testing the food before it is proven fit for the woman; in case it is poisoned, he would die first. He is also charged with walking in first to deflect any attacks, and thus, to safely lead the way for her to walk unharmed.

We tend to make assumptions based on what we – think we – know, based on our background, based on our personal preferences. And then, we act upon these assumptions. Matt offers a recruitment-related example: “Hiring managers choose candidates that they have a good feeling about but can’t explain why they want to hire that person.”

But is it necessarily a bad thing, though, to opt for people who’ll fit with your culture? Or, people you think you and your teams will get along with? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

(Un)conscious bias is costing you money and talent

Biased hiring decisions result in less diverse teams. And less diversity hinders your business productivity. “If you literally just put it into Google, you find article after article and research piece after research piece that says businesses perform better when they have greater ethnic and gender diversity,” Matt explains, “more diverse companies produce more revenue.”

But, he adds:

We don’t have to make the business case for diversity anymore.

You aren’t just trying to reduce unconscious bias in recruiting at the moment you select candidates; you must go further back and reduce that bias in where you find your talent in the first place, especially when talent shortage and skills gaps result in a less-than-optimum candidate pool for a job opening. So, you’re not just looking to diversify your team, but also diversify your hiring process: when you cast a wider net and explore new candidate sources, you reach out to people who already have the right skill set, yet didn’t make it into your hiring pipelines using your usual strategy. “People are finding it very difficult to find talent in the way that they’ve always done,” Matt says, “so they need to think more creatively and be more flexible about how they get the right skills in their business.”

And you can do that by removing the barriers and start looking at candidates with non-traditional backgrounds. In one episode of his podcast, Matt talked with Dominie Moss from The Return Hub about untapped talent, which takes us back to the concept of assumptions: we’re often biased against people who took a career break or want to make a career change and this could actually cost us great and candidates.

“I think that the companies that get that, are tending to be more successful and are tending to outthink their competition. Now, whether they are able to actually act on it and actually make a difference, that’s the key,“ Matt notes.

How to remove unconscious bias from the hiring process

First and foremost, we need to be aware of our biases. We might not able to get rid of them completely, Matt says, but it’s important to build awareness and help people think more consciously when making hiring decisions.

Bias could be everywhere

Unconscious bias in recruitment is common during the resume screening phase. This is when we move forward or reject applicants based on how close they are to our picture of the ‘perfect candidate’.

But that’s not the only step of the hiring process where we should be looking for unconscious biases. Even when we decide to move a candidate forward despite a lingering feeling that they’re not quite suitable for the role, that initial impression will follow – or haunt, really – us throughout the hiring process and it’s likely we’ll disqualify them at a later stage.

To identify potential biases, we need to look at every step of the entire recruiting cycle, from the recruitment marketing techniques we apply to the moment we bring people on board. Matt elaborates on this by sharing an example of one company that was struggling with hiring female employees. Their challenge was not that they didn’t attract female candidates; rather, they noticed, that men were far more willing to accept a job offer compared to women.

“When they did some research, they found out that there were various reviews about the company that suggested that people wouldn’t want to work there.” The HR team was completely unaware of these reviews, so they remained unaddressed. And job seekers often look at company reviews on Glassdoor, Indeed, or another job site before they make their final decision to accept or decline a job offer. “That was one of the things that was causing the problem in their process,” says Matt. “But, they would never had spotted that, had they not actually analyzed what was happening at each stage of the recruitment process and where the disconnects where.”

To really understand where your biases are, you need to monitor your recruitment process on an ongoing basis, gather data and pinpoint where the problems are, Matt explains. “Is it the type of applications you attract? Is it the fact that people get into your recruitment process but, then, leave? Where people are coming in and where do they drop out? Sometimes, the problems can be identified as coming down to specific individuals or specific teams within the organization.”

The role of technology in increasing diversity

“There’s a sense that actually, technology could fix this,” Matt says. There are tools that hide applicants’ pictures. Or, tools that automatically post your job ads in multiple places, broadening the outreach and reaching more candidates in the ‘unlikeliest of places’. One of the latest trends is also making parts of the hiring process anonymous.

In one episode of his podcast, Matt discussed with Penguin Random House about how they went through a whole recruitment campaign without looking at resumes at all. “They didn’t ask any questions about people’s backgrounds, or even their names, or their ages. They literally got them to complete a written exercise. Anyone could do that. And, they only met the shortlisted applicants at the very, very last stage. The final interview. They had no idea who was coming through. What happened was they ended up recruiting some people who would’ve never made it through their traditional recruiting process because, for example, they didn’t have a degree at the time. They found that it was very beneficial for their work.”

But, technology is not a panacea. Matt recently described how AI could help build a more objective hiring process, but how, at the same time, it’s also tied with the human factor. “Do technologies bake unconscious bias in recruitment in the way their algorithms work and in the way they match people? Do they actually make things worse? That’s a debate that we’re probably going to be having for many, many years.”

Fighting the root of unconscious bias in recruiting

Instead of relying only on the most advanced technologies, Matt recommends thinking about how we can improve ourselves, too. He mentions the example of a company that had a very specific problem: a lack of women in senior roles within the business. Being very committed to solve this problem, they realized that there were various unconscious biases in the way hiring managers were doing interviews and selecting people.

This was not an issue that technology could fix. “Instead, they ran a series of courses and workshops to bring it into focus and to make people aware of what their biases were and how that was playing out.”

Matt gives another perspective, too: removing unconscious bias is not independent from your overall business objectives. You need to consider what you want to accomplish and how you’ll get there.

“Companies really need to think about how they are assessing people through processes. ‘What are the skills, experience, competencies, that we actually need in this job?’ And, if we were all open-minded about where we could go and source those competencies, we might find we employ very different people, to the people that we’ve got.”

And that’s a good thing to do for one more reason: “it’s important that businesses reflect the societies in which they’re based.” Societies are diverse, so unconscious bias in recruitment could quietly sabotage the effort to build equally diverse workplaces. “I think that’s critical, particularly in our current state with so much uncertainty, the need for people with different viewpoints and different life experiences coming into businesses. Because there’s visible diversity, but [there’s] also diversity of thought,” Matt concludes.

Can we truly get rid of our biases?

There’ve been some great initiatives from companies that try to build more inclusive work environments globally. There’ve also been various organizations and communities that actively support minorities in the workplace. There have even been people who are dedicated to increase diversity within their company (for example, through the role of a D&I Manager.)

But all of these efforts don’t guarantee that we’ll become completely unbiased. Unconscious bias exists even if we’re genuinely pursuing more diversity in our hiring process. We can always start, though, by trying to understand where biases are coming from and how they affect our hiring decisions; we may not be able to completely discard our unconscious bias, but, ultimately, we’ll be more conscious of it when it does happen.

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Christina Pavlou

Christina is a writer at Workable, previously a recruiter. She writes about diversity in the workplace and reports on the shape of things to come. She tweets @ChristinaPaulou.

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