How you feel about having unconscious bias does not put into question whether you have it. Even if you work on your conscious mindset, unconscious mental shortcuts and split-second decisions prevail - especially in the recruiting process. In this article we discuss the consequences of bias in hiring and how to tackle it.
Unconscious bias is not the only kind of bias that impacts hiring. Yet, the first categorical step for any organization in reducing bias in hiring is to acknowledge that unconscious bias exists inside each of us; it is more powerful than our intentions to be, or self-concept as, a fair human being; and no amount of awareness of it, or willingness to overcome it, are sufficient to control or override it.
In fact, unconscious bias causes us to act in ways that reinforces stereotypical notions unconsciously even though we consciously consider that behavior counter to our value system. How you feel about having unconscious bias does not put into question whether you have it.
Even if you work on your conscious mindset, unconscious mental shortcuts and split-second decisions prevail - especially in the recruiting process that is so dependent upon initial impressions. Once we can acknowledge this, it becomes clear that a failure to intentionally mitigate hiring bias is equivalent to actively choosing and proliferating it.
Fortunately, there are many ways to reduce unconscious bias in the hiring and recruitment process.
Bad hiring decisions account for up to 80% of employee turnover and the cost of turnover is 2.5X the annual salary of the position. Hiring and recruitment are rife with bias (often parading as intuition) that doesn’t always match the best person for the job.
Implicit bias begins from the moment we define the role, but especially rears its head in face-to-face interviewing: undoing the best of organizational and individual intentions to remove bias from the recruiting process.
The notion of “cultural fit” or “likeability” is often no more than a reflection of biologically hardwired affinity bias, or “like-likes-like” - which is equally a rejection bias (or like rejects unlike). We sense we have a gut feel, an inclination, a good feeling about someone - and we absolutely do, but it usually has nothing to do with the job or the person’s qualifications.
In fact, research shows that we spend the vast majority of any interview unconsciously seeking to confirm the snap first impression we formed within the first ten seconds, also known as confirmation bias. Your initial notion of the candidate becomes what you are now interacting with throughout the interview: not the candidate. We like people who make us feel comfortable, who we can imagine going for a drink with, who we would feel at ease sitting beside, who have a distinctive spark but in a vaguely familiar way.
The notion of “the right candidate” is equally loaded. We associate extroverted confidence with competence, but then perceive it differently (positively or negatively) based on who exhibits it. The second we say ‘executive presence’ or ‘coding whiz’ we conjure an involuntary gendered mental image we then mentally benchmark against, called anchoring bias.
More than that, within seconds of hearing speech, Yale found that we make snap perceptions on social class (not even based on words spoken but speech patterns such as pronunciation) that favors hiring from higher social classes, seeing them as more competent and offering them better pay. Natural hair styles put black women at a hiring disadvantage, and a typical white-sounding name will elicit 50% more interview callbacks than an African-sounding name on an identical resume.
Even the well-intentioned mindset of hiring the "best candidate possible” may actually limit the recruiter's ability to perceive their own bias - the higher the stakes and personal responsibility for meeting them, the more unconscious bias may be activated. The more we attempt to control our own bias, the more evidence suggests we are activating it at a level imperceptible to our conscious awareness.
If we accept that we bump up against bias at every turn, no matter how carefully we personally move to avoid it, then we can shift to a growth mindset of not letting our acknowledged personal biases run the show. Actively and intentionally mitigating bias is where the circle of influence exists.
A famous behavioral design that both made evident, and overcame, bias was the orchestra blind auditions in the 1970s - which had musicians audition from behind a curtain so that gender was invisible, even though judges would not have consciously said gender influenced them - and contributed to women going from 10% of orchestra musicians to 40% today.
If we truly want to hire candidates from “underestimated backgrounds,” we need to go beyond changed mindsets and focus on behavioral interventions to take the bias that we cannot remove from ourselves, out of the process.
Over this two-part series on bias in hiring: We present different levels of interventions based on where your organization calibrates with DEI today:
Making a commitment to robust, comprehensive and long-term unconscious bias training (not a one-off, catch-all, tick-box training day) is a valuable first step to creating awareness, and ideally - engagement, empathy and collective ownership of inclusion. On the other hand, if it’s the only step and done conventionally, it will likely not only be ineffective in creating behavioral change but also do more harm than good.
Try positioning unconscious bias training not as the solution for countering unconscious bias - but rather with a focus on awareness raising as a way of opening eyes and minds around the need to commit to bias-disrupting interventions.
We cannot rely on our brains to catch and eliminate bias because our brains are where the bias originates. No organization, nor individual, ultimately desires to be the sum of their conditioned programming. The solution, then, is how we change our systems and processes to identify and mitigate biases.
Aligning the core competencies, skills and job needs required upfront - before writing the job description - helps to set out the hiring criteria based on what is actually needed for a successful hire for this particular role (eg are extroverted social skills important in this particular role?).
This may include factors such as knowledge and experience (often overvalued), technical skills, competencies, personal motivations, as well as - and more importantly - the job’s behavioral needs. Having life experiences that translate into meeting the job needs is more important than familiar or traditional trajectories to get there. More and more employers are exploring how to hire for competencies needed in the role, not the anticipated background to get there.
Job descriptions are your open call to the talent pool and should allow any qualified person to envision themselves into the role. But often, unconscious language narrows the door of relevancy and discourages some applicants - “nurturing” and “supportive” or “collaborative” and “cooperative” read as woman, “competitive” and “assertive” and “determined” read as man - and none of these subjective adjectives focus on what is actually required.
Qualities are not criteria. By making the language of job descriptions conscious, gender neutral and inclusive, your organization will become more able to attract diverse individuals. Including overt details about how you value inclusive culture helps you to lay out the welcome mat to underrepresented candidates. Software programs, such as GapJumpers and Textio, can also support organizations in either removing gendered words, for example, or striking the right balance in the mix of words. The “flip test” helps to reveal what is being said between the lines when you step out of your own shoes.
Research by Harvard Business Review found that if there is one woman or underrepresented individual in a final candidate pool, he or she has zero chance of being hired. If there are two women, the odds are 79 times greater, and if two from an underrepresented group, 194 times greater. One of the most impactful ways to hire more diversely is to actively diversify the slate of candidates - including two or more women or people from underrepresented groups.
When working with external recruitment firms, use your influence and set the criteria for diversity in the talent search; if you don’t, the search firm will present the candidates from diverse backgrounds to the companies with those requirements.
As demonstrated by The Rooney Rule, expanding the talent pool through diverse slate requirements did translate into more diverse hiring; however the rule has continued to evolve because the change in outcomes did not improve drastically Diverse slates are an essential first step but not sufficient; it is important to monitor outcomes as you change processes and require accountability for outcomes.
Akin to the blind orchestra auditions example, stripping out images, names, gender, education, school name, and other demographic and socioeconomic factors that trigger conscious and unconscious assumptions keeps the focus on ability, qualifications and talents when it comes to the first hurdle of choosing more objectively from resumes.
Software such as Applied, GapJumpers and Unitive supports employers in reducing bias by removing applicants’ demographic characteristics.
Next week, we will continue with more intermediate and advanced actions for mitigating bias in the recruitment process, while levelling up your DEI leadership, for more effective hiring.