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8 Actionable Tips to Reduce Unconscious Bias in Recruitment

Reducing unconscious bias is critical for organisations looking to build a diverse and inclusive workforce. But identifying and overcoming unconscious bias is not always easy.
Published 25 Jun 2022
8 min read
8 ways to combat bias in the hiring process

In the 1970s, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra realised they had a diversity problem. With male musicians making up the grand majority of their ensemble, a lawsuit triggered a radical new audition process. Incoming candidates would perform on a stage behind a screen, unseen to the auditioning committee.

Every effort was made to conceal the auditionee’s identity, with candidates even removing their footwear so no sounds of women’s heeled shoes could be heard.

By the early 1980s, women made up 50% of the new hires, and women still make up 45% of the orchestra today. The blind audition process revealed what is called subconscious bias. Although the audition committee weren’t intentionally trying to preference men, a bias against women was clear.

Subconscious biases against underrepresented groups are a massive problem for companies.

They reinforce a culture of inequality and can also stop your business from finding amazing talent and are likely costing you money.

What is hiring bias in recruitment?

Hiring bias would see you prefer a certain type of person over another during the recruitment process. It can lead to a lack of gender and cultural diversity in your workforce and can remove equal opportunities for people with various religious beliefs, sexual orientations and differences in ability.

Bias in hiring can exist at all stages of recruiting, from using discouraging language in job descriptions to not advertising widely enough to not recognising great talent to progress.

How does bias affect recruitment?

It can limit the talent pool you draw from, limiting your team’s skills and experience. It can also lead to lower staff morale, as people feel they haven’t been given a fair chance or that their workplace isn’t inclusive.

If hiring business exists at your company (and there’s a high chance that if you haven’t interrogated it, it could), you risk overlooking great talent with valuable skills for your incoming roles. Not making a diverse workforce a priority comes at a great cost to businesses, impacting workplace culture, innovation and revenue.

A 2018 Boston Consulting Group Study found that companies with diverse management teams have 19% higher revenues due to innovation.

What are the different types of bias in recruitment?

Unconscious bias

Unconscious bias (also known as implicit bias) can be difficult to detect and uncomfortable for an individual to unpack. It’s one of the most widespread and dangerous kinds of discrimination that exists in modern society. It’s simply that – unconscious.

You can have great intentions of offering equal opportunities for all job candidates and still make decisions based on unconscious bias. You might think you are making objective decisions, but your brain may push you towards specific outcomes derived from social and societal conditioning.

An example of societal conditioning? A 2009 study found that applicants with white-sounding names are more likely to succeed than applicants from ethnic minorities with identical CVs. This type of bias may be subconscious, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be tackled.

The worst approach is to just assume that you are completely neutral, as people who believe strongly in their own objectivity are actually more likely to make discriminatory decisions.

Affinity bias

Say you’re a hiring manager rifling through a pile of CVs. One detail in the pile catches your eye – maybe a candidate went to your university. Without thinking, you instantly begin to favour them, and they are fast-tracked to the first round of interviews.

This is known as affinity bias – another unconscious tendency – where you may have something in common with a candidate and rank them above others because of this.

Affinity bias can give some candidates an unfair advantage that can follow them through the recruitment process.

Similarity bias

Like affinity biases, similarity bias can lead hiring managers and recruiters to preference people with similar qualities to themselves. We are naturally drawn to people like ourselves, and hiring managers will often select candidates they can see themselves in.

This can lead to, what some experts call, an office full of ‘mini-mes’. Of course, there’s no problem with looking out for a ‘cultural fit’ for your team, but make sure you’re not buying into similarity bias.

Celebrate diverse candidates differences and consider how their different personalities and skills could contribute to your workforce.

Contrast effect

The contrast effect is a strange phenomenon. Essentially this bias includes making assumptions about candidates based on the directly previous applicant. This would involve a hiring manager sorting through a bunch of CVs, comparing each one directly to the last.

This could also occur when interviewing, when one exceptional interview with a candidate may make the next one feel underwhelming. The contrast effect means that applicants are not seen and evaluated individually.

Of course, bias can also be intentional. If someone from your workforce is displaying discriminatory behaviour, take disciplinary action, and remove the individual from any hiring or HR responsibilities until the matter is resolved.

Download our hiring interview checklist for an effective interview process.

How to remove unconscious bias in the hiring process

1. Create a structured recruitment process

Have your HR managers follow a standardised hiring process for recruitment. Every time a new role appears, candidates should all move through one funnel. Under one role, candidates should be interviewed with the same questions and respond to the same task.

Make sure all applicant paperwork and correspondence are filed in a place that is easily accessible to the hiring team.

Pro tip: An Applicant Tracking System (ATS) is a centralised source of information that can transform the recruitment process. Easily keep track of all candidate information and paperwork, build shortlists, schedule interviews and hire new employees – all from one place.

2. Provide diversity training for your HR and hiring teams

Most people never intend to display bias, but they may not have the knowledge of how it can manifest unconsciously. Making the HR team and managers aware of these unconscious biases doesn’t mean harshly interrogating their approaches. Start with a conversation.

Give your team all the facts, and talk openly about how biases can manifest even within people with the best intentions. It’s not about making anyone feel guilty or ashamed, it’s about empowering teams to be the best and most informed versions of themselves.

From there, organise diversity and inclusion training sessions for your team. There are lots of options to do online and in-person training sessions.

Pro tip: Download our diversity and inclusion handbook to learn more.

3. Make sure your job ads have great visibility

Part of making sure you get a great pool of talent for your role is to cast as wide a net as possible. Reaching out to your network is a great way to get the word out, but be sure to extend your advertising effort further than that to find new talent.

Make your job ad as visible as possible by posting it on many different job boards. Use keywords where possible and frequently post about it across social media. Speak to your marketing team about using digital marketing to reach the widest audience possible.

Pro tip: Creating an employee referral program is a great way to find top talent.

4. Consider your language when advertising

In her book Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, author Caroline Criado-Perez describes a study that examined gendered wording in job ads;

“When a European company advertised for a technical position using a stock photo of a man alongside copy that emphasised ‘aggressiveness and competitiveness’ only 5% of the applicants were women. When they changed the ad to a stock photo of a woman and focused the text on ‘enthusiasm and innovation’, the number of women applying shot up by 40%.”

The language and imagery you use in job ads are important. When presenting each role, consider different types of applicants who may be applying. Be conscious of framing your workplace as an accepting and inclusive place.

5. Invest in and promote remote/flexible working

Remote and flexible working can open up your workforce to a whole new range of candidates. Let’s be real, the future of workplaces will be made up of hybrid teams. The possibilities of employees that could be captured in these are endless – from working parents and carers to people who live in locations far away from your company HQ.

Forward-thinking businesses will be implementing flexible work practices and promoting these to incoming recruits. So much more talent will be available for your company if you invest in these areas.

Pro tip: Hiring employees in different parts of the world could transform your business and give you unique knowledge about new markets.

6. Consider blind screenings

Even if you don’t think there is unconscious bias happening in your workplace, consider implementing some blind screenings for a period. This could be an illuminating exercise for your hiring teams.

Upon the first round of hiring, remove identifiable characteristics from CVs like names, gender and academic background.

Ask your hiring managers to not visit applicants’ LinkedIn profiles until later in the recruitment process. You could also ask your first round of candidates to complete personality-based questionnaires or skills-based tasks, which are reviewed separately from their CVs.

Evaluate all submitted information anonymously before linking them back to the candidate. After recruiting a selection of roles using blind screening, compare the results to your previous hires.

Is there a big difference in diversity in the considered candidates? Share and discuss the findings with your team.

7. Collect and analyse data on your talent pool and hiring procedures

After a period of staff growth, collect and analyse data on your talent pool and hiring procedures. Make note of who is applying for advertised roles, who is being hired and what the candidate experience is like.

Can you identify any patterns that might suggest an unconscious bias in your hiring staff or a lack of diversity in applicants? Ask candidates for feedback, how did they find the recruitment experience?

Did they find the job advertisement approachable, and did they feel comfortable through the interview process?

Encourage them to share any thoughts on whether their experience could have been improved in any way.

Pro tip: With the help of an ATS, you can collect this data on an ongoing basis, it’s an important thing to be monitoring as your company grows.

8. Continue to prioritise diversity and inclusion company-wide

It’s simple but worth stating – the more your company prioritises diversity and inclusion, the more diverse and inclusive your company will become.

Through inclusive hiring, nurturing everyone in your workforce to unlock their potential, and promoting a range of team members to leadership positions, you will create a better-performing company with a wealth of skills and perspectives.

This, in turn, will create more opportunities for people of all backgrounds to join your team. Consider writing diversity and inclusion commitments into your company values and policies. This will make it clear to your staff that this is a business focus.

Pro tip: Learn more about the hiring process with our employee recruitment guide

The issue with unconscious biases can be complicated, but the solution is clear.

Don’t just assume that unconscious bias is not present at your workplace. Work together with your team to create fair hiring processes that will make sure all applicants are given equal opportunities.

Doing so will go a long way in creating a more diverse and inclusive team, plus a more innovative and successful business.

The Employment Hero ATS can transform your in-house hiring process, help your team find the best people, store candidate information in a centralised recruitment platform and make offers to great talent. Book a demo today!

More diversity and inclusion resources for hiring managers

Learn more about diversity and inclusion in the workplace:

We’ve included everything you need to know about Diversity and Inclusion in our free HR Handbook.

Download now

Diversity and inclusion handbook

Kate Jolly
Talent Acquisition Manager - Employment Hero
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