Unconscious bias: how is it affecting your hiring decisions?

Unconscious bias can hinder a firm’s ability to forge a truly diverse workforce if it goes unchecked. The challenge is unconscious bias is exactly that – so what is it, how do we become more aware of it and reduce its potential influence on hiring decisions?

Numerous studies have shown the positive impact a diverse and inclusive workforce can have on a business. Just last year, a BBC article referred to research by McKinsey which revealed firms with diverse leadership had financial returns above the industry average.

While the correlation doesn’t automatically mean greater diversity means greater profits, it does suggest that a varied workforce, in all its forms, can give an edge to a business that it wouldn’t otherwise have.

But what exactly is unconscious bias, is it always bad and can we negate its influence in recruitment?

What is unconscious bias?

According to Warwick University, unconscious bias, also known as implicit bias, “refers to a bias we are unaware of, and which happens outside of our control. It is a bias that happens automatically and is triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences.

Unconscious bias is said to affect between 90-95% of people. This was the findings of a landmark study by Washington and Yale University in the 1990s – The Implicit Association test – that wanted to uncover peoples unconscious attitudes towards others.

Is unconscious bias always bad?

Unconscious bias can certainly have a negative influence on our decision making and, in business, recruitment decisions. It’s the reason some businesses automatically remove names, addresses and dates of birth from CVs before interviewing applicants – the reason being this information could subconsciously affect our judgements.

It should be stated, though, that unconscious bias is also a natural process. Believed to be the result of our ancestors needing to make quick decisions to determine threat levels, such as being confronted by a new tribe or potential predator, unconscious bias is not inherently a bad thing – it just is.

The key is to be aware of it and bring it into the conscious as much as possible, so we can begin to counter any potential negative consequences.

Can we reduce the impact of unconscious bias in recruitment?

There are some simple, yet effective, techniques to mitigate the risk of hiring decisions being distorted by unconscious bias. Here are a few:

Establish critical criteria

A straightforward way of reducing the impact of unconscious bias during the recruitment process is to ensure everyone is measured by the same standards. By establishing criteria that is critical for the role, and aligned with your company values and culture, you can fairly evaluate each candidate.

Standardise your processes

Going hand in hand with establishing critical criteria, standardising your recruitment process is one of the best ways to remove the potential for bias to creep in.

By using structured interviews, in which each candidate is asked the same set of defined questions, you can focus on the attributes that will directly impact the individual’s ability to perform in the role.

Be honest

Unconscious bias is incredibly hard to stop as you are effectively attempting to rewire your brain, but it is useful to reflect on your thought processes before making any hiring decisions.

By simply acknowledging you may have pre-determined ideas, you can begin dispelling them. You may even deem these ideas to be positive, such as thinking females are more empathetic and are better suited to positions in customer service or care, but even these thoughts could have negative implications going forward.

These biases could prevent other employees progressing their career or even damage your employer brand in some situations, which in turn could make harder to recruit great candidates in the future.

Technology

There is an increase in the number of firms adopting technology, such as artificial intelligence, to aid in the recruitment process and thereby help reduce the effect of unconscious bias. After all, machines do not have the inherited unconscious bias we do.

When you consider it takes the average person around seven seconds to form an initial impression, you can see why businesses are leveraging technology to help highlight the competencies, skills and traits of a candidate, which could otherwise go unnoticed. Technology is not a singular solution, but it can help ensure fairer decisions are made.

Involve the team

When making hiring decisions on your own, it’s easy for very subjective thoughts and opinions to go unchecked. More often than not, it means we recruit in our own image.

By involving other members of the team, and creating a diverse interview panel in the process, you gain the wisdom of alternate perspectives. Ultimately, your hiring process becomes more objective and eliminates the need to rely on ‘gut feeling’.

Blind recruitment

Blind or anonymous recruitment is a highly effective method of reducing the impact of unconscious bias in the early stages of the hiring process.

It involves removing a candidate’s name and personal information from the CV and application so he or she will not be subject to stereotyping or prejudice. By removing elements such as the name, address, names of places of education and even previous companies, you are reducing the potential for any bias with regards to heritage, socio-economic background, indication of intelligence and any other preconceived ideas you might have.

In doing this, you are forced to review a candidate’s experience and education much more objectively.


If you would like support with your recruitment, as well as tapping into a pool of highly talented candidates, please contact one of our expert team today.

About the Author

Anne Corder

Anne Corder

Owner

Whilst still actively handling recruitment assignments, Anne specialises in Human Resources with many years of experience in that sector. She blogs on wider recruitment issues affecting both candidates and clients, commenting and offering tips and advice to help achieve the right outcomes.