How to Avoid Unconscious Bias: Enemy of Diversity Hiring

By Caroline Roberson on June 8, 2022

The widespread global protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder have helped bring attention to racial injustice that exists in all facets of society.

Ensuring fairness and diversity in the hiring process is not only important for a racially just society. Many studies show that greater diversity in an organization offers measurable benefits such as increased profitability, greater creativity, more effective governance, and better problem-solving abilities.

One study from Boston Consulting Group found companies with diverse management teams have 19% higher revenues due to innovation, compared to those with below-average diversity on their leadership teams.

Despite these noticeable benefits and bold claims from business leaders about promoting diversity, there has been little noticeable change in some organizations. At Google and Microsoft, the number of Black or Latino tech workers grew by a mere one percent between 2014 and 2019.

A study from Georgetown University found that White workers are paid more than Black or Latino workers in similar jobs at every level of education received.

As in many areas of society, systemic bias is an ongoing problem in the workforce, and changing it should be a top priority for every business owner. The challenge is, how?

Unconscious bias: The secret enemy of diversity in hiring

Diversity training and diversity quotas have been shown not to work, largely because most managers don’t think they are part of the problem. Biases in hiring and promotion decisions are often unconscious, which makes increasing diversity “someone else’s problem” for many managers.

In reality, studies show that we like to hire people who look like us, who are familiar to us, and who we can imagine befriending. That is why, when White male managers are in charge of making hiring decisions, you end up with more White male employees who just ‘felt right’ for the job.

Even when diverse hires are made, if little is done to make them feel welcome or to ensure their success, they won’t stick around for long. This happens because even the best diversity policies get ignored when managers and recruiters don’t have the tools, training, or motivation to implement them.

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The systemic failure to achieve diversity goals suggests we all need to think more strategically about diversity in recruiting. If companies can reduce unconscious bias from the recruiting process and make efforts to nurture new hires, they might start to see greater diversity within their employee populations. Here are 4 strategies to help make that happen.

  1. Involve diverse employees in hiring.
    As with all good decisions, having a diverse group of people involved in the process ensures a broader spectrum of preferences will be considered. When interviewing candidates, bring multiple, diverse perspectives to the table. These may include teammates, diverse leaders, or representatives from employee resource groups who are tasked with helping the company achieve its diversity goals.
  2. Remove names from applications.
    Studies show that people with foreign and female-sounding names are less likely to be considered for a job regardless of their resumes. These include a study from Ryerson University that shows fictitious applications with Chinese, Indian, or Pakistani-sounding names were 28% less likely to win an interview than candidates with English-sounding names who had identical qualifications. Similarly, a study conducted at Harvard found that when Black and Asian candidates “Whitened” their resumes (by removing all ethnic references) they were roughly twice as likely to win interviews.

    Companies like PinpointGapjumpers, and Blendoor make it easy to remove names, geographies, and other bias-inducing data from resumes before showing them to recruiters. Although this strategy doesn’t solve systemic bias, it could be a simple measure to help make the hiring decision fairer.
  3. Replace instinct-based decisions with data-based decisions.
    Instead of relying on interviews and resumes – which include biased interpretations – consider using tools that measure a candidate’s skills and abilities. Pre-employment assessments provide data that predict which candidates best fit your job profile, regardless of their gender or race, and makes it easier to do side-by-side candidate comparisons. The data can both help make more informed decisions and act as a counterbalance to unconscious bias.

    Of course, assessment items and scoring algorithms can still be influenced by biased writers and underlying training data, respectively. So, it’s important to monitor for bias both during and after an assessment is implemented.
  4. Make diversity a priority before making a hiring decision.
    Even if a recruiter falls prey to their unconscious bias, requiring them to include people of color and women on their sourcing lists and search strategies will encourage them to look further afield of the usual candidate sources. It may also help them increase the pipeline with more diverse candidates from the start and not relying on biased decisions of a few diverse candidates at the decision stage.

We would all like to think we are fair and impartial when it comes to judging people, but there’s plenty of evidence to show that there’s a difference between valuing diversity and effectively implementing it. Since most people are subject to their unconscious biases, HR departments, recruiting leaders, and hiring managers need to shine a light on these biases and find ways to mitigate them for your company to finally achieve its diversity goals.

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