Overcoming Unconscious Bias in Recruitment

By Astrid Wonderley on June 10, 2022

How internal biases can derail diversity in hiring – and how to prevent it from happening.

Even with the best intentions, unconscious bias has a way of sneaking into the recruiting process. Hiring managers (and humans in general) are naturally attracted to people who are similar to them. From bonding over the same alma mater or favorite team to sharing a gender, race, or country of origin, our subconscious draws us to people who are like us, and that influences who gets hired. These decisions aren’t made out of malice. They are the result of hidden biases that affect who we perceive as best.

Consider the famous example from the 1970s, when orchestras, which had been predominantly male, began holding auditions behind screens to blind their own biases. Within a decade, the ratio of female musicians rose from just 5 percent to 25 percent. It was a progressive move for the 70s. It underscores the lesson that even if recruiters think they are being fair in assessing candidates, they probably aren’t.

Despite years of talking about unconscious bias, many industries have been less progressive in addressing unconscious bias. This has resulted in persistent gender and diversity gaps. The most noteworthy is the world of technology, where only 25 percent of the workforce is female and just 15 percent are black or Hispanic. Thankfully, we are seeing more companies be proactive about unconscious bias training.

Benefits of unconscious bias training.

Gender gaps aren’t just a problem for the candidates who are passed over for jobs. If your workforce lacks diversity, your business suffers. When unconscious bias affects your hiring process, you’re missing out on hiring the best talent. The absence of diverse perspectives can crush creativity, lead to poor decision-making, and result in missed opportunities to meet the needs of a broad customer base.

There are many benefits of unconscious bias training. A recent McKinsey study shows that companies in the top quartile for ethnic and racial diversity in management were 35% more likely to have higher than average financial returns, and those in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15% more likely to have higher than average returns. In other words: workforce diversity brought about by unconscious bias training isn’t just a nice idea – it’s a smart business strategy that delivers financial results.

How to fix what you can’t see.

How do you eliminate unconscious bias from your hiring process? Setting diversity goals and offering diversity training is an important first step, bur research shows those are among the least effective ways to create a more diverse workforce. This is partly because no one believes they are being biased so they don’t apply the lessons to themselves.

To reduce bias in your hiring process, you need to take the subjectivity out of your hiring process by using tools and processes designed to objectively measure the skills and competencies of candidates early in the hiring process before emotional bias can set in.

  1. Rewrite your job descriptions. The language you use in your job descriptions exposes subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) biases in your company. For example, the words “aggressive” and “competitive” tend to be more appealing to men than women. Use a writing tool, like Textio, to remove bias and to improve your job postings.
  2. Try removing names in your initial screen. Sometimes called “going blind”, removing names from your screening step allows you to select candidates based purely on their background and experience. Without names, you can focus on specific qualifications and talents.
  3. Use assessmentsBerke provides a Job Fit Score, summarizing how well a candidate’s personality traits and cognitive skills align with job requirements. The score doesn’t take into account a person’s experience, where they went to college, or what their cultural background is.
  4. Standardize interviews. Ask all candidates applying for a specific position the same questions. This allows you and your hiring managers to weigh and consider the strengths of individual’s responses, rather than “trusting your gut”.

Following these steps for unconscious bias training increases the chance that the best candidates will rise to the top regardless of their race or gender. It can also help you recognize your own hidden biases. For example, you may be excited about a candidate who worked for a well-recognized brand, only to see that their Job Fit Score was lower than other applicants. Alternatively, a wonderful candidate may get lost in the shuffle because you make assumptions about her skills, only to find her Job Fit Score is among the highest.

Level the playing field by setting expectations for diversity in recruitment and by providing your team with objective tools to assess candidates. Do this and you’ll not only reduce unconscious bias, but you’ll also improve the quality of your workforce.