In a perfect world, the decision to hire a candidate would be based solely on whether they would be able to do the job well. Unfortunately, in the real world, the humans who make hiring decisions are almost always affected by some degree of bias.
Research shows that bias—prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another—is baked into each of us. This likely affects a wide range of our decisions without us even knowing, particularly when it comes to the recruiting and hiring process. The term often used to describe this unwitting bias is unconscious bias.
Unconscious bias can negatively impact workplaces by thwarting efforts to recruit and retain diverse employees. Unconscious bias can lead to poor hiring decisions and also hamper career advancement opportunities and contribute to salary inequities, preventing equal opportunities for women and people of color.
The following guidelines can help organizations recognize and disrupt unconscious bias in the hiring process.
• Educate Your Recruiting Team. Seek out opportunities to learn about bias and how it can affect the hiring process. Look for articles, trainings, and other information that you can share with anyone who is making hiring decisions. Make sure that key stakeholders understand that unconscious bias can damage efforts to create diverse, inclusive workforces.
• Learn to Recognize Common Biases and how they may impact hiring processes.
o The “halo and horn effect”: It’s common to associate certain factors (such as graduating from a prestigious university) with particular traits (this candidate must be extraordinarily intelligent). If someone on your hiring committee decides she “prefers” a candidate because he went to a particular school, plays a particular sport as a hobby, or is from her same hometown, it can create a “halo effect” where that one detail about a candidate can impact our opinion of them. His degree from a top school, love of soccer, or Baltimore heritage does not necessarily mean he’s the ideal candidate for the job. Conversely, one negative association can create a “horn effect,” that results in an overwhelmingly negative perception of someone because of a single trait or factor.
o Affirmation bias: When meeting someone new, we often look for commonalities—did we attend the same school, do we live in the same neighborhood, etc. Often, during the recruiting and hiring process, we’re more inclined to favor candidates “like us,” with shared interests, backgrounds or beliefs. We may not feel a connection to someone who has a very different background, and thus see them less favorably as a candidate.
o Bandwagon bias: This occurs when we adopt a belief or direction because the group holds that belief. Bandwagon bias may come out in the workplace when hiring committees make decisions together.
• Develop and Implement Structured, Consistent Processes. Develop clear core competencies before beginning a search to determine the skills and characteristics candidates must offer, and compare all prospects against the same list. Ask each candidate the same interview questions to make sure your assessments are impartial and unbiased. Have the same people interview all candidates so prospects can be fairly assessed, and make sure that each interviewer is using the same structured evaluation process.
• Consider “Blind” Techniques. Redacted resumes can help reduce bias. When certain details (e.g., name, hometown, school) are excluded, it helps increase hiring diversity. Interesting side note: It’s now common practice for professional symphonies to hold “blind auditions,” putting musicians behind curtains so performers are judged solely on the sound and quality of their music. Previously male-dominated, the number of women hired by symphonies has increased significantly as a result. Companies can achieve the same effect by blinding aspects of candidates’ resumes.
• Improve Your Job Descriptions. Job descriptions can tie into bias. Certain requirements (e.g., experience at a Fortune 500 company, an advanced degree) can attract a homogenous group. Be mindful of your descriptions: words like “assertive,” and “competitive” often attract men; words like “dependable,” and “collaborative” tend to attract women. Use neutral language to entice a more diverse candidate pool, including eliminating gender-specific pronouns. It’s becoming more common to use “they” as a pronoun in job descriptions to avoid gender bias and signal a commitment to diversity and inclusion.
• Expand Your Network. Don’t depend solely on the same recruiting methods that you’ve always used. For instance, employee referrals are often ineffective in increasing diversity efforts. Employees tend to refer people that are similar to themselves in terms of race, education, and background, which could contribute to a homogenous workforce. To recruit a more diverse pool of candidates—and, ultimately, build a more diverse workforce—go beyond the “usual” referral sources. Task your recruiting team to proactively reach out to a range of organizations and sources to expand candidate pipelines.
At worst, unconscious bias can result in unfair or even discriminatory hiring practices. Even without bordering on discriminatory hiring practices, unconscious bias is almost certainly causing highly qualified candidates to be passed over and making it more difficult for companies to achieve diversity goals.
The best way to combat unconscious bias is to first learn to recognize it, and then put hiring practices into place that promote equity, consistency, and fairness during every step of the process. The tips above can help you get started.