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Unconscious Bias in Recruitment (and how to stop it)

No one wants to think they are displaying discrimination in their hiring process. But here’s the problem: our brains are doing it for us — whether we like it or not! ‘Unconscious Bias’ is what helps our brain cope with the incomprehensible amount of information we receive every second of the day. Where it becomes a problem is when unconscious bias plays out in our hiring process and causes us to overlook great talent.

We often talk about ‘gut feelings’ and ‘first impressions’ — these play a big role in assessing candidates. But these feelings are often a product of unconscious bias and can lead to inaccurate judgements and at worst, discrimination.

 

It’s a real issue, but it doesn’t need to be. As senior business leaders and hiring managers, we can put our process under the microscope to affect change. Here are four ways that unconscious bias can influence recruitment — and how to overcome it to build a more diverse and inclusive workplace.

1. Hiring based on likeability or finding “someone like me.”

Known as affinity bias, the ideal candidate is often the person you like the most. This one is hard to overcome — if you can picture having a drink at the pub with someone, it’s likely that you’ll picture them as a good cultural fit for your team or business too. But likeability is not an indicator of how well someone would perform in the workplace. Similarly, when we are successful in our jobs or have a high performing team member, we look for more people with the same characteristics. This can turn into ‘confirmation bias’, when our brains instinctively look for information that confirms what we already know.

Of course, building an entire team with similar interests, backgrounds and experiences is not going to lead to a diverse workplace with fresh and challenging ideas. Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, sums it up brilliantly when he said:

“A diverse mix of voices leads to better discussions, decisions, and outcomes for everyone.”

  • How to overcome affinity and confirmation bias in hiring:

Instead of focusing on ‘culture fit’, look at hiring a ‘culture add’. Find someone that can contribute unique qualities that would have a positive impact on your team and move your business forward. To lean on the pub analogy again, instead of thinking about who you want to have a drink with, think about who would help you win at pub trivia. Diversifying knowledge, experience, and backgrounds within your team improves your chances of success.

Create a structured applicant review and interview process so that your team will be able to compare applications equally. This should include a set of standardised, skill-based questions that provide each candidate with a fair chance of standing out. While every interview will lend itself to a unique conversation, it will prevent your team from asking too many questions that may lead to bias.

If you still think affinity bias may be clouding your judgement, try this exercise: Jot down notes of similarities you share with the candidate and use them to differentiate between their strengths vs attributes you like. Similarities shouldn’t disqualify a candidate, but they shouldn’t be the deciding factor either.

2. Being dazzled by a first impression

Known as ‘the halo effect’, our brains have a tendency to take one piece of impressive information and give it too much weight. We let this one fact rule of our judgement of a person. One superficial example of this is that people who are deemed attractive are generally assumed to be more intelligent, more trustworthy, and even earn higher salaries. The halo effect can also apply to a candidate’s previous experience at a highly regarded company or an elite school. If you have ever thought “this person is perfect for the role!” within a short time, you have probably experienced the halo effect.

  • How to overlook the halo effect and take people on their merits:

When reviewing a stack of applications, it’s natural to want to look for something unique that makes a candidate stand out from the rest. But it’s worth considering that this dazzling attribute may come to a privileged few. To unearth great candidates who may not have had the same opportunities, don’t focus on where they have come from — look at where they are going. Do they have the skills and drive to challenge themselves and your business?

3. Being put off by superficial information

The reverse of the halo effect is the ‘horns effect’ — a bias that causes hiring teams to weed out candidates based on a trait that doesn’t align with their preferences. Perhaps a candidate worked at a company you dislike, or you were bothered by a mannerism displayed during the interview. These traits can alter your perception of a candidate, even though it has no bearing on their ability to do a job.

  • How to overcome the horns effect:

Challenge yourself to examine where any negative feelings are coming from. This will help you determine if it’s a real concern or something that shouldn’t affect their chance at the role.

4. Judging a candidate by their name

The name at the top of a resume is an area where unconscious bias can really bite us. Names give away clues like a candidate’s gender, religion, and background. As uncomfortable as it is to admit, this hits applicants from minority backgrounds the hardest.

UK research found that discrimination in recruitment remains largely unchanged since the 1960s. People from a minority background have to send on average, 60% more job applications to get a positive response from employers compared to their white counterparts. The same discrimination was recorded even when applying with identical CV and cover letters.

I have seen this firsthand with an incredible candidate I placed a few years ago. He was a talented Business Analyst who relocated from Africa. But when I saw his resume, he was working as a postman. After months of applying for BA roles, he never received a single response, and he needed to take a job to support his family. When I sent him as a candidate to one of Australia’s top banks, he was hired immediately for a contract position. He has since been promoted and is now recruiting staff for his own team. All he needed was someone to look at his skills over his name and background.

  • How to avoid name bias:

One way to avoid name bias is to conduct blind screenings of applications, excluding details that may reveal clues towards their gender, background, and interests. This allows you to compare candidates based on skills and merit, rather than personal traits. Having diversity targets and policies on equitable hiring practices can also go a long way in ensuring that names aren’t getting candidates struck off the interview list.

Identifying your biases and getting help to diversify your team

The best advice I could give toward overcoming unconscious bias is to ensure that there isn’t just one person responsible for hiring in your business. When you have a diverse hiring panel with a mix of genders and backgrounds, each person will be looking for something different. This allows the hiring process to be collaborative and not swayed by a single person’s decision.

“Diversity attracts diversity”

As soon as an interview ends, have everyone write down and submit their individual opinions separately from one another. Then, have your team come together and review what everyone wrote down to hear each other’s impartial opinions. It’s important to let each person speak up and voice their unique opinions, as someone might have spotted something you didn’t and vice versa. This also stamps out the chance of ‘conformity bias’, where people change their opinions to suit the majority and fit in with their peers. Yep, there sure are a lot of biases that can trip us up when it comes to recruitment!

 

Curious about what biases you might have? The good news is there is a free tool that can help you uncover them, It’s called the Implicit Association Test, and you can find it online at the Harvard website here.

If you need help diversifying your team or your hiring processes, or would like a copy of the webinar I ran last week, please feel free to send me a message on LinkedIn, email me, or call me on 0432 605 199.  This is a topic I’m incredibly passionate about so if you would like to chat further, please get in touch.

FT Executive is a full-service talent and customer consultancy who enable businesses to transform and grow. Whether it’s people, process or technology change you can count on our expertise in giving you the competitive edge to attract the right talent.