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Unconscious Bias in Recruitment

Is unconscious bias damaging your recruitment process?

If you’ve experienced an unsuccessful recruitment process in the past, you may be overlooking how unconscious bias could be preventing you from finding the right candidate for your role. To reduce the impact of unconscious bias, it’s important to first understand how it occurs, and then consider what you can do to overcome it.

What is unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias is an individual’s unaware prejudice against a specific age group, gender, race, sexual orientation or other characteristic.

It’s influenced by cultural background, experiences and environment and is made in a split second by our unconscious brain. It’s for this reason that it’s so difficult to establish and rectify – unconscious bias happens automatically and it affects everyone, everywhere.

A little over 20 years ago a team of social psychologists at Yale devised a controversial test (the Implicit Association Test) to establish whether people were being unknowingly prejudiced.

The Implicit Association Test (IAT) revealed that the majority of people tested were unable to be completely without prejudice in one form or another. The test revealed that the participants tended to feel biased towards their own race while more than 80% of people are biased against older people.

Unconscious bias in recruitment

In a world that is striving to represent all walks of life in the workplace, unconscious bias goes a long way to explaining why many cross sections of society are underrepresented in senior management teams and in boardrooms.

For example, in a 2009 experimental study, job applicants with a white sounding name were found to be a significant 74% more likely to be asked to a job interview than applicants with an ethnic minority sounding name (Full fact).

If unconscious bias is stopping genuine talent from making it to roles in our organisations, then our businesses are being negatively affected as a result.

None of us want to be biased – unconsciously or otherwise – so it’s important to accept that unconscious bias can occur and affect our recruitment processes and hiring decisions.

Understanding your bias

Below is a summary of the key types of bias that could be affecting your hiring decisions.

Successive Contrasting bias

Successive contrasting bias may occur when you carry out an interview with an excellent candidate that you think could be the right person for the role, but you are meeting with several more candidates that day. As a result, you may pick fault, and look less favourably on the next candidates that you interview. This could affect up to three subsequent candidates, who may have been more positively judged under different conditions.

Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias might occur if you have previously had a good working relationship or experience with someone that has a specific trait or characteristic – green hair, for example. If you then meet a candidate that has green hair you may unconsciously have a positive association with them, or interpret their application and interview more positively in order to confirm your hypothesis/belief. You may even overlook more capable candidates due to your own biased belief of the green-haired candidate’s abilities.

Halo effect

The halo effect was observed by Edward Thorndike in the 1920s. It refers to the tendency to let a candidate’s good qualities cloud your perception of their less attractive qualities. Take caution, as what we perceive as ‘good qualities’ is also weighted by our own bias. As a result we may overlook a candidate’s other weaknesses and be distracted by ‘the halo covering their horns’. (People Management)

Bandwagon bias

Bandwagon bias or ‘group think’ causes a group to make a decision to maintain group harmony, rather than choosing the correct candidate. A strong-willed group member may insist to the rest of the group that their preferred candidate is better than the others, and is the right choice for the role. To avoid confrontation with the strong-willed group member, the group are persuaded to choose this candidate regardless of whether they are the correct person for the job.

Anchoring bias

This occurs when a hiring manager relies too much on a specific detail of the candidate’s application and makes assumptions and judgements about other elements of their abilities without gaining evidence. For example, because a candidate is experienced with customer service from working in a bank, the interviewer may assume the candidate’s abilities to handle finance issues without having evidence of this.

What can we do to avoid unconscious bias in recruitment?

The following four methods are proven to be impactful in reducing the effects of unconscious bias in the hiring process.

1. Interview scoring – Quantify the Qualitative

Natural human chemistry plays a part in unconscious bias. An interviewer will naturally gravitate to a candidate they can see themselves getting along with on a personal level, or who shares the same interests. This may not mean that they are the best fit for the role.

Much of an interview process may include reviewing qualitative aspects, for example, a candidate’s people skills, how well a candidate may work in the current team culture, or ‘likeability’. Firstly, be careful to consider if these aspects are important to the role in question. Secondly, by quantifying these aspects, in the same way you would any other relevant professional attribute, you will gain perspective and control over unconscious bias.

By using interview scoring methods to measure a candidate’s performance at interview, you can compare applications based on quantifiable scores, and find a candidate that is right for the role by fulfilling far more requirements. Quantifying these aspects might seem like an odd measure, but it will help to gauge competency with less bias.

2. Share the decision making

More heads are often better than one, and by involving more people in the interview process, you will gain a greater insight into the candidate’s suitability. Avoid sharing opinions about candidates until a final stage, or decision-making stage. By including several different managers in the interview process, you can review interview notes, and have more interview scores to compare, and reveal a candidate’s suitability more effectively.

This will also reduce the impact of any bias that may have affected any stages of the interview process.

3. Revise your job descriptions, person specifications and adverts

Words have unintended connotations.

To reduce bias from the outset of the recruitment process, stick to neutral language in job descriptions and adverts, or bounce between both masculine and feminine phraseology to encourage as many applicants as possible.

For organisations who employ on a regular basis, or in large numbers, it could be worth exploring software that identifies and suggests alternatives to ‘heavily-gendered’ words.

4. Drastically simplify CVs

Simon Fanshawe, co-founder of Diversity by Design and a well known leader in the workplace diversity space, has shared how removing names from CVs helped to combat bias in a university he was working with. This allowed the experience to shine through without the filter of gender or ethnicity to cloud the process.

And it didn’t stop there. Simon asked “Why do [those hiring] want to know what university [applicants] went to?” One explanation is that those doing the hiring “are simply biased and … think if people went to Cambridge, they are better,” (Inside Higher Ed)

This approach has been adopted twice by Nottingham University – both positions were taken by women. Furthermore 15% of applicants and 35% shortlisted were women – the shortlist-to-applicant ratio far exceeded the typical ratios, proving that the system works.

Try simplifying your applicant CVs before sending them to hiring managers.

What is being done on a national level?

The Government are implementing changes to try to rectify bias – Gender Pay Gap reporting is expected to enable more women to be present in senior leadership teams in the next 5-10 years. The pay gap reporting measures are also set to be expanded to include ethnicity pay gaps.

Reflecting on our hiring practices and reducing unconscious bias where possible will create more successful recruitment processes, and initiate positive changes in our own workplaces.

We hope you found this article useful. If you would like more information how to address unconscious bias in the workplace, or any other aspects of your recruitment process, please contact one of our team on 01271 859 267 or office@fitzgeraldhr.co.uk

Read More: 

Should smaller organisations care about the Gender Pay Gap?

Pay and benefits: Which are the most popular?

The Government consults on the Ethnicity Pay Gap

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