Unconscious bias in recruitment

We all are recruiters. Every manager, director, or team leader had a chance to build a team and participated in the candidate selection process. Each of these people made employment decisions with unconscious bias. We should basically call them “involuntary sympathy/favor” or “involuntary dislike/negative attitude” towards a particular person.

Someone has beautifullyexplained, “Unconscious biases are like an invisible yet omnipresent force that influences many of the decisions we make in our daily lives.” They are like a little weight that tips the scales. In the business sphere, they can play a significant role, among others, in the process of making decisions regarding employment or promotion.

How does unconscious bias in recruitment work?

Due to unconscious bias, talented candidates may be overlooked as early as the interview selection process. This is because the decision can be made by checking the candidate’s picture on the CV, their name, background, education, and even hobbies.

During the interview with the candidate, the initial image developed on the basis of the CV and the prejudices of the recruiter will be important. As a result, the interview process will only be a way to validate her beliefs and prejudices.

Bias in recruitment affects every person who makes hiring decisions, which makes the recruitment process biased and unfair. It is not easy to realize for yourself where the sense of impartial assessment of the candidate’s competencies fails and stereotypical thinking prevails. We are biologically programmed to adapt to people like us and to choose colleagues with similar attitudes and points of view.

Is it good for team building?

Certainly, decisions will be made much more efficiently in a team consisting of homogeneous characters. However, the lack of diversity of opinions and critical thinking will cause unanimity to limit the team to specific solutions and will not be conducive to creativity and innovation.

List of the most common unconscious biases

  1. Hiring candidates who are similar to ourselves (commonality bias) – have you ever caught yourself evaluating a candidate as: “He’s great because we graduated from the same school, or we have similar interests, or he reminds me of me from a few years ago.” Most of the time, candidates we like on a personal level are hired. We’re talking about natural chemistry and instant sympathy that deepened over the course of the conversation.
  2. Concordance of opinion – a situation where people involved in the recruitment process unknowingly change their minds in favor of the majority. For example, if 4 out of 5 recruiters say candidate #2 was by far the strongest candidate, the 5th recruiter who had a different opinion will end up agreeing with them, just to fit in.
  3. Racial and ethnic biases.
  4. Sexual orientation bias.
  5. Age bias.
  6. Gender bias.
  7. Prejudice based on disability.

A list of unconscious prejudices, no longer so obvious

  1. Confirmation bias – Recruiters’ exaggerated confidence that they are able to hire the right candidate, which in the interview expresses a search for answers that reassure them that they are right.
  2. Haircut bias – the texture and style of certain ethnic groups’ hairstyles, e.g. afro, braids, dreadlocks, may be perceived as less professional than straight or curly hair.
  3. Name bias – we naturally prefer names that sound indigenously locally and are correlated with our nationality.
  4. Lookism, or beauty bias – occurs when recruiters subconsciously believe that a person’s appearance affects their performance at work. Attractive people are more easily hired and promoted than unattractive people. For 93% of employers, appearance is a critical or very important factor for achieving business success.
  5. Halo effect – focusing on a few qualities or achievements of the candidate that will affect the recruiter so much that he will lose the possibility of a reliable assessment and will be blinded by the positive aspects of the candidate.
  6. Horn effect – is the opposite of the halo effect. It occurs when the interviewer cannot forget something that he or she perceives as negative, but not related to the job, about the candidate. It may be an association with something that was unpleasant for the recruiter in the past.

There are also quite conscious hiring biases, which are characterized by recruiters being overtly biased against a particular type of human personality.

Prejudice research and the effect of two similar people on the shortlist

Leeds School of Business professors at the University of Colorado, Stefanie K. Johnson, David R. Hekman and Elsa T. Chan conducted interesting research related to prejudices and problems faced by companies in the process of building diverse teams. The conclusion drawn from the research is as follows:

If there is only one woman / one man / one foreigner / one senior in the pool of candidates, statistically these people have no chance of being employed. Why? Because each of these people is a departure from the norm, and going beyond the pattern is associated with risk.

The conclusions suggest themselves. The “two-of-a-kind candidate pool effect” will be of great importance in overcoming unconscious biases and bringing about the cultural, gender, and age balance that is expected in organizations.

How to get rid of biases in the employment process?

Do we have a chance to conduct a reliable employment process? Yes, we do. However, this requires perseverance, systematic and structured activities in the creation of the recruitment process, and adherence to these rules by all persons involved in the employment process.

Start by accepting that you have unconscious biases. We all have them. Develop and deepen the topic of prejudices so that you can recognize them in yourself. Treatment has a chance of success only with the correct diagnosis. Create a process that will support decision-makers, including you, in making a reliable and impartial assessment:

  1. Do not allow people involved in the recruitment process to share their opinions until everyone has held meetings with the candidate.
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask yourself the hard question – “Would I react or think the same way if it was a male versus a female, white versus black, older versus younger?”
  3. Refine published job offers. According to Francesca Gino, a professor at Harvard Business School, job postings play an important role in recruiting talent and often give a first impression of a company’s culture. Even a subtle choice of words can have a big impact on the application pool. Research shows that masculine language, including adjectives such as “competitive” and “determined”, causes women to perceive that they would not fit in such a work environment. On the other hand, a word like “collaboration” tends to attract more women than men.
  4. Browse through the “blind CV” – this way you will cut yourself off from prejudices related to the candidate’s gender and nationality. It would be ideal if the candidate’s graduation years were not listed in the CV. In this way, you will cut yourself off from age-related prejudices.
  5. Develop tests or case studies – their results will allow you to assess the candidate’s performance in the future and compare the results of candidates.
  6. Conduct conversations in the form of structured interviews – thanks to this you will focus on the factors that will affect the candidate’s future performance.
  7. They prepare a list of points you want to explore in a candidate, he will put “likability and natural chemistry” on it. Thanks to this, you will not rely only on the first impression when choosing a candidate.

Finally, to make us feel a bit better about our imperfect grades, let me quote Iris Bohnet, director of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard Kennedy School. “To see is to believe,” explains Iris Bohnet.

If we don’t see male-teachers in daycare or female-engineers, we naturally don’t associate men and women with these jobs and apply different standards when hiring, promoting, and evaluating performance.

Instead of absolving ourselves with these words, let’s take concrete steps so as not to lose real talent in the hiring process. Biases, as we all know, work only to our disadvantage.

Monika Ciesielska
President at IMSA Search Global Partners. An experienced consultant in the recruitment of the management staff, including board members, and a leader of the recruiting team in the IT/Tech area. Enthusiast of digital transformation of HR processes. Podcaster at "Skrzydlaty HR" and "Top Leaders Club".
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