Is Unconscious Bias Killing Your Hiring Process?

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Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Unconscious bias is something that can impact workforces of any size in any industry, so how do you stop it killing your hiring process?


Unconscious bias is a term that feels fairly new, but it represents a very real problem for employers and those involved in talent acquisition. Not only does it damage a business's ability to foster a more diverse workforce , but it could also see recruiters miss out on the most gifted applicant because of something most of us aren't even aware of.

So what is unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias is the way your background, personal experiences, societal stereotypes and cultural context can have an impact on your decisions and actions without you realizing it. This can be anything from a person's gender to their accent, race or age, and it presents a very real problem in talent acquisition.

For recruiters, it means that white men - who largely dominate industries - are more likely to hire people who are like them: white men. Companies around the world realize the benefits of having a more diverse workforce and unconscious bias is a particular stumbling block that is standing in their way.

There are numerous types of unconscious biases that can affect the hiring process in a variety of ways. Affinity bias, for example, leads to people hiring those who look like them, while confirmation bias causes people to look out for evidence to support their own misconceptions or stereotypical views of people.

Unconscious bias is an issue that needs to be addressed, but it can be a bit of a grey area as to what organizations are legally required to do. It can impact your hiring process in a number of ways: 

  • Performance - it can mean that you wrongly discount the most suitable candidate
  • Financial - businesses with less diverse workforces aren't as successful, and there's also the potential cost of tribunals
  • Moral - there's a moral obligation for employers to ensure their hiring process is as fair as possible

There's also the legal obligation that most states and countries have that prohibit employers from discriminating against employees or applicants because of their gender, age, race, religion or sexuality. 

Is it really a problem for recruitment?

Research has found that unconscious bias is fairly common among the general public. It found that more than two-thirds of participants felt uncomfortable talking to a disabled person, while gay or lesbian job seekers were five per cent less likely to get a job. In addition, 80 per cent of employers said they would make recruitment decisions based on the regional accents of candidates.

With this unconscious preference for people like us being so rife in the general public, it's no surprise that this is having an impact on recruitment. One of the most in-depth studies into the influence of unconscious bias on hiring was done in the UK and found that people with 'white-sounding names' were far more likely to receive a positive response to an application than those with Muslim-sounding names.

The study found that Muslim men were 76 per cent less likely to be employed than their white Christian counterparts. This prejudice in recruitment has been supported by other studies conducted across Europe and the US.

So what's the solution?

The Financial Times highlights two ways in which businesses have worked to address the influence of unconscious bias in recruitment and internal progression.


The telecoms group has run a pilot scheme in India to test how effective removing the gender of applicants from CVs is. This helped to uncover some of the problems the company was facing. It had been thought that women weren't being recruited because there weren't enough female applicants with the right skills, but this was found to be untrue. Many highly qualified women were applying for the roles, but they weren't being picked for interviews.


The professional services company found that far more men were being promoted internally than women, causing a gender imbalance that got worse the higher they progressed. In this case, it wasn't just that men were favoring candidates they related to, but also that women would lack the confidence to apply for them. Now line managers are encouraged to talk to high-potential female colleagues when a promotion is advertised and find out if they've applied or not.

How can I stop it killing my hiring process?

Citing the expertise of Iris Bohnet, Director of the Women and Public Policy Program at the Harvard Kennedy School, and Francesca Gino, Professor at the Harvard Business School, Harvard Business Review advises seven ways in which HR departments can work to limit the level of unconscious bias occurring in recruitment:

1. Understand your problem

The first step to removing biases in hiring is to be aware of where they are and then look to identify ways they could be standardized. The best solutions will involve the whole workforce, where everyone admits to having some level of unconscious bias and everyone collaborates to come up with ways of removing prejudice.

2. Rethink your job descriptions

The wording of job listings can have a massive impact on who applies for the role. Research shows that men are more drawn to adjectives like "competitive" and "determined,", which could isolate female applicants. In contrast, words like “collaborative” and “cooperative” tend to appeal more to women. Software can help you identify and remove these stereotypically gendered words.

3. Go blind

With so much research supporting the fact that people with white-sounding names are more likely to get a positive reaction, you need to level the playing field by removing names and any background details. This will help you to focus on the skills and experience rather than anything else. Again, software can be introduced to do all of this for you.

4. Give a work sample test

Work sample tests that closely mimic what candidates would be doing in their role are an effective way to focus on ability rather than anything else. It makes it much more straightforward for recruiters to compare one applicant to another without unnecessary bias.

5. Standardize interviews

Unstructured interviews are bad at predicting job success and are more likely to lead to bias. Interviews where candidates are all asked the same questions reduces the chance of prejudice, as it allows employers to focus on the factors that have been pre-defined as the most important to the role.

6. Does it matter if you like them?

They say your first impression is the most important one, but in a professional context is it really important whether you personally get on with them or not? What you do or don't like can easily blend into unconscious bias, so it's something to watch out for if you are concerned about it.

7. Set diversity goals

Setting diversity goals can help prioritize the issue to everyone in the business, but they need to be implemented carefully so employees don't get the wrong idea. Announcing that your business wants to have a more diverse workforce can come across as patronizing or as a box-ticking exercise to non-white employees already in the organization, while others may feel as though they are being devalued.

Ensuring unconscious bias doesn't harm your hiring

There's no hard and fast solution that will work for every company when it comes to removing any unconscious bias from your hiring process. There are steps each employer can take, as highlighted by HBR, but the effectiveness of these methods will be determined by how engaged HR and the wider company are with diversity.

It needs to be something that is discussed at every level of business in order for it to be successful and to ensure that, as a company, you are taking the most effective steps towards reducing unconscious bias in hiring.

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