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It takes all kinds: 5 steps to mitigate unconscious bias in recruitment and hiring

July 25, 2023

Creating a fully inclusive and diverse workplace is not an easy task. In our unequal world, many groups of people are marginalised and excluded from positions of power, which means businesses may be skipping amazing talent.

However, most HR professionals, recruiters, and managers are not actively looking to hire people who look and act the same as them — in many ways, it’s done unconsciously. So what is unconscious bias? Why should businesses care? And how can organisations mitigate unconscious bias in their selection process?

What is unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias, sometimes called implicit bias, is a term referring to an individual’s attitude towards other people based on stereotypes and ideas they subscribe to subconsciously. This bias lies in ingrained beliefs which impact the emotional and rational responses of people, even though they are not intentional. These can impact marginalised groups more than others, for instance, women, people of colour, LGBTQIA+, disabled people, and neurodivergent people.

An example of unconscious bias would be asking a female colleague rather than a man to organise a birthday party, out of an unconscious belief that women are better at organising social events; or dismissing advice from a young coworker out of the subconscious idea that young people shouldn’t be taken as seriously as their older peers.

Most, if not all, people have some level of unconscious bias, so it’s vital for everyone to do the work to try and negate these notions within them.

What is unconscious bias in recruitment?

Recruitment is one of the realms where unconscious bias is the most dangerous. It acts as a gatekeeper, preventing talent from joining your ranks because of ideas that are wrong and detrimental. When it comes to hiring, unconscious bias is when you form an opinion about a candidate based on your idea of them rather than tangible skills or traits. In fact, one study found that impressions made in the first 10 seconds of an interview could impact its outcome, and we can all admit that you learn nothing useful enough about a person so quickly!

Picking one candidate over another because they look like they would be fun to hang out with; tending to go for male candidates in male-centric industries; or hiring someone who went to the same school as you, could all be examples of unconscious bias in recruitment.

Why should businesses care about unconscious bias?

If everyone has some sort of unconscious bias, then why should businesses even take note of it? Well, the answer is pretty simple — unconscious bias curbs your ability to become truly diverse and inclusive, makes your hiring process unfair, and hurts your bottom line.

In a world where talent attraction is key for business success, you can’t allow your selection process to be impacted by anything but the potential performance of a candidate. According to Deloitte, 84% of employees said bias negatively impacted their happiness and confidence, 75% felt it influenced their level of engagement, and 68% observed that it reduced their workplace productivity, which highlights how crucial removing unconscious bias is to the healthy and successful functioning of a company.

How can you overcome unconscious bias in hiring?

While unconscious bias is clearly an unwanted distractor in a recruitment process, its unconscious element makes it very difficult to overcome. Here are our top tips for a bias-free selection process:

1. Remove biased language

Even before you start engaging with potential hires, your candidate pool will be impacted by how you’re searching for applications. But, did you know that your job description and job ad could deter talent from applying in the first place? Language, in particular, could make a real difference.

Take gender, for example. Researchers have found that women are far less likely to apply if the description includes ‘masculine-coded’ words. For example, ‘active’, ‘confident’, and ‘driven’ were found to be some of these words. Considering there is an average of 6 male- or female-coded words per job advert, using more neutral language is crucial.

You should also make sure the skills you say are required are, well, actually required. Are ‘excellent communication skills’ really necessary for an accountant, for example? Avoiding traits or skills that are unnecessary will open the door to neurodivergent candidates, who are less likely to apply if the wording doesn’t suit their capabilities accurately.

2. Read your CVs blind

Let’s be honest. We all know that Amy is getting more callbacks than Fatima, and Rob is going to receive a response way before Mofeoluwa. In some cases, it might even be that Rob is preferred over Amy. And all of this? Before the CV has been read beyond the ‘name’ line. It’s not just our opinions — statistically, ‘white-sounding’ names are 50% more likely to get a callback than ‘black-sounding’ names.

The reality is, our names carry weight. In many cases, they say a lot more than simply what to call us, but rather add ours and our families’ histories and identities into the mix. Opting for ‘blind applications’ — applications that remove irrelevant information (name, age, gender, race, nationality, family status, or a profile picture) can lead to less biased decisions.

Many apps can make resumes automatically blind, or hide bias-prone information from you, so it’s a pretty simple step to take that can help immensely.

Person with hands over their eyes

3. Introduce data into the process

Let’s kick this one off with quite a shocking fact: as much as 85% to 97% of hiring managers rely on intuition in a selection process. Let that sink in for a bit! It means that the vast majority of businesses are hiring based on a hunch — a nice euphemism for ‘bias’ — rather than real, tangible reasons for the decisions they made. This isn’t only bad from a diversity perspective — it also means that you may be saying ‘no’ to the best candidate of the bunch based on nothing but a gut feeling.

Injecting science into the process can help make data-driven decisions that rely on merit rather than familiarity, stereotype, or vibe. But don’t fret, it doesn’t have to be intimidating. Firstly, you can try to incorporate some kind of assessment that has high scientific validity and reliability, like a cognitive test or a personality assessment (or a combination of the two, which is the best predictor of job success). The Thrive assessments, for example, test for both cognitive and personality, based on the traits and skills psychologists have deemed to be the most important for the particular role you’re hiring for. You can also customise this and add the traits you think are important, too.

Other ways to do this are introducing a sample task, reviewing a portfolio, or making your interview process more structured. Studies show that unstructured interviews — those without defined questions, that are meant to work more as an organic conversation — are unreliable at predicting job success. Instead, you want to ask the same baseline questions (that are relevant and seek a direct impact on job performance) to each and every candidate, essentially benchmarking them against each other.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t ask other questions individually, though. The Thrive platform will provide you with a list of personalised interview questions that are meant to specifically assess how your candidate deals with their weaknesses, for example — these would be great to collect data, but it would be pointless to ask them to every single candidate, even those who scored higher.

4. Consider any necessary adjustments

Your candidates aren’t a monolith, so it’s important to treat them as individuals and consider what kind of adjustments they might need to have a fair shot. For example, neurodivergent people may benefit from reviewing the interview questions before an interview, as it would reduce their anxiety levels and allow them to answer the questions sincerely.

Alternatively, you may have some expectations from your candidates. Wearing a professional suit, for instance, or spelling flawlessly. Removing these assumptions from your process can make a huge difference — it might be that your candidate is in a rough financial spot and can’t afford a suit, or it might be that you’re talking to a dyslexic prospect who can’t spell right. Both of these candidates can be the perfect fit, but be lost to the organisation because of a silly notion of what’s considered professional.

Other adjustments can include more time for tests or tasks for people with ADHD, or allowing for video interviews for disabled people if your office isn’t fully accessible.

5. Invest in diversity

While fighting against unconscious bias has to be done in the remit of recruitment and specifically within each hiring process, it’s not enough to leave it at that. It is absolutely essential for businesses to take on the cause of diversity and inclusion seriously, in and out of recruitment.

By investing in diversity, educating your teams (and especially managers), and setting diversity goals, you can transform your business in a holistic way, which will inevitably challenge unconscious bias in hiring, too.

If you want to learn more about how Thrive can help you mitigate the impact of unconscious bias on your selection process, book a demo with us today.

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