Recruiting best talent is critical to all organisations. But recruitment decisions can, and often are, influenced by unconscious recruitment biases. Such biases can be hard to identify, but they can lead to imbalances in the hiring process, which will ultimately create a less diverse workforce.
The way we think is largely moulded by various unconscious biases which influence the way we perceive reality. How we were raised, socialised, our friends and social groups, and even the media are all areas of bias that shape and influence our decision-making process and help us formulate judgments.
But any sort of bias, even where it is unintended, can negatively affect the hiring process. When those involved in the hiring process bring their own preconceived ideas and views into reviewing and short-listing applicants, holding interviews, and making hiring decisions, it results in an unfair field for candidates. This leads to businesses overlooking potential talent.
In this guide, we consider examples of recruitment bias to help employers identify and avoid unintended bias in their recruitment and selection processes.
Why is recruitment bias a concern for HR?
Ideally, a decision to employ someone would be based on their ability to perform the role available. They would be hired in an objective and pragmatic way, free from unconscious bias and objectivity. However, as hard as we try, sometimes outside factors cloud our judgment. This is when unconscious bias occurs.
Organisations demonstrate stronger performances when they take a sincere and effective approach to supporting diversity and inclusion across their workforce. Recruitment bias results in less diverse workplaces and teams. A lack of diversity hinders business productivity and will probably cost your business money.
Look beyond the point of selection and working backwards to the place you find your talent, particularly when skills gaps and talent shortages result in a less than optimum candidate pool. Try thinking about exploring new candidate sources because when you reach out to those who have the right skill set but did not make it into your usual hiring pipeline, your hiring pool is wider.
Examples of recruitment bias
Once a business is aware of the existence of unconscious bias, it can take steps to correct it. The following are all examples of common biases which might affect your recruitment decisions:
This is where someone only considers information that confirms their beliefs and ignores everything else. Confirmation bias also causes a lack of exploration of other details or information not apparent, since they already believe their first impression. For example, if a well-dressed candidate enters the interview room, as long as your initial impression of them is good, you will ignore anything negative about them after that. This means that you formulate your opinion, whether that is positive or negative, based on one detail and then see everything following on from that as confirmation of that opinion or otherwise unimportant.
This happens when the person interviewing identifies in some way with the candidate in front of them based on similar or likable traits. This has the effect of the interviewer responding more warmly towards them during the interview and speaking better of them afterwards. In most situations, there was no actual basis for this warmth, just this subjective feeling that can harm other candidates.
This means that you wish to hire someone exactly like you, so someone with the same group interests, hobbies, etc. This is unlikely to be a successful tactic for hiring the best talent unless you are interviewing them for your job. It should be remembered that each job has different competencies, which should be reflected in the hiring process with an emphasis on diversity.
This is where you believe the candidate shares your own goals, beliefs, etc, and you therefore think they would be a good fit for the role you are hiring for. But because people have their own priorities that are completely separate from yours, making the assumption they would fit into the business can lead to confusion and disappointment.
This is where you think that since the candidate is good at 1, it will naturally follow they will be good at 2, 3, and 4. You should assess if they have the necessary skills and experience and not simply judge the candidate based on one singular trait.
This is opposite to the halo effect, where something negative is seen or heard, and followed by an assumption that the candidate’s other traits are negative too. For example, if the candidate answers the first few questions at interview badly, you believe they will answer the rest of them that way and assume they are not adequately qualified for the role.
This is where the interviewer is happy with the way things are and wishes it to stay that way. It can lead to only searching for past experience to find a suitable candidate, meaning you miss out on someone entering the industry who may be ideal. Keeping you focussed on those already in the field whilst ignoring fresh talent. Status-quo bias can also occur where you are filling a position that was previously held by someone you liked. You will probably try to hire an exact copy, which adds internal blinkers to your search for the best talent.
Nonverbal bias/Effective Heuristic
This is where a candidate’s ability to perform a role is based on a superficial characteristic such as tattoos or body weight. A one-dimensional trait does not mean you can do a full analysis on whether they are qualified. It is also dangerous on legal grounds, so you need to beware.
This is when you have convinced yourself that an earlier candidate you interviewed was best for the role, and don’t take into consideration any candidates interviewed afterwards.
This happens when you are reading many CV’s or interviewing candidates one after the other, and you start to compare how they are to previous candidates. You should always ensure you are comparing individual experiences and skills to the job role on offer.
This is where you have a different opinion than that of the interviewing panel, but change your mind to agree with them. This is also known as the ‘majority rules’ principle, or the ‘mob mentality’ and happens when a group form an idea of someone which takes hold even when not everyone agrees with it.
These recruitment biases make hiring more problematic and you do not even realise you may miss out on the best talent out there because your first impressions have been taken at face value.
Overcoming unconscious recruitment bias
Try to advertise roles where diverse audiences are catered for. This can be at job fairs, in newsletters or emails, in fact anywhere that widens the talent pool and appeals to different social and cultural backgrounds.
You should know how your wording attracts (or doesn’t) different candidates. Your job advertisement could be biased simply by using wording such as ‘young people person’ because that is likely to discriminate based on age and being extroverted. Be aware that how you write your job adverts influences the process even before receiving CV’s let alone the interview stage. Try to rewrite job descriptions that seem to appeal to a specific gender or type of personality.
You could try introducing a system for ‘blind applications’. This is where you evaluate the talent without getting bogged down in personal details such as name, age, gender, which can generate bias. There are programmes out there that look at each candidate via data points and compare them with the role’s core competencies instead of trawling through CVs by hand. This can be fairer, however you need to be aware that the biases of the programmer may influence the software, so you should not rely solely on this method of assessment.
Give a work sample test
Work sample tests are designed to mimic the sort of tasks the candidate would do in the job and are considered to be one of the best indicators of future job performance. Asking candidates to solve work-related issues or undertake a skills test provides important insights because it forces an employer to critique the quality of the candidate’s results instead of unconsciously judging them based on a particular characteristic.
Adhering to structured interviews, such as each candidate answering the same set of standardised questions, makes it easier to compare their abilities without being influenced by superficial traits. It can also be helpful to ask a set of behavioural questions to assess how the candidate reacted in the past to possible future situations.
If possible, place at least two individuals on the interview panel. You could even try to have Zoom or other platform style interviews to enable more people to hear the candidate and evaluate them.
Ask yourself if you are pushing forward or dismissing a specific candidate. Is this because of concrete data or evidence from their CV, skills test, or interview, or is it based on a gut feeling or a physical characteristic? If it is the latter, then you are probably being biased. Once a bias is recognised, you should endeavour to get yourself back to an objective analysis.
Try to train yourself or any others involved in the interviewing process out of making decisions based on superficial traits. This includes judgments based on appearance, comfort level during the interview, or culture; try to look deeper. If issues remain, you might ask better questions at interview or look into interview training. Above all else, you should avoid making snap decisions, because they are never the best way to hire a new employee.
Your conclusions can be tested by checking the candidate’s references. This will confirm they are who and what they say they are.
Outside the recruitment process
By becoming familiar with different experiences, people and cultures, it reduces rejection of those who are different because of these traits. Such biases not only limit potential hires but are also likely to be considered discrimination. Never dismiss a candidate merely because they seem different from the norm. You should actively consider whether a different mindset, communication skill, or thought framework enhances the workplace, leading to dynamic problem solving.
Recruitment bias principles:
- Experiment with the wording of job descriptions and listings by removing words associated with a particular gender, age, etc
- Consider asking candidates to undergo a work sample test. It is a useful way to compare applicants and is an effective predictor of future job performance
- Try to control personal feelings about a particular candidate by giving likability a numerical score. By giving it a score, you are making it more controllable.
- Conduct unstructured interviews. Rather, standardise interview processes by asking candidates the same set of defined questions
- Allow surface demographic characteristics to play a part in your CV review. Consider using a software programme that ‘blinds’ information to ensure a level playing field
- Neglect to set diversity goals for recruitment. You should also track your company’s progress.
Recruitment bias FAQs
How do you stop recruitment bias?
Ensure your business introduces blind skills challenges, removes gendered wording, makes data-driven decisions, advertises roles through new channels, structure your interview process, and has an interview panel. This process will help to curb unconscious recruitment bias.
What are some hiring biases?
Common recruitment biases include: confirmation bias, halo effect, affinity bias, similarity bis, projection bias, pitchfork effect, status-quo bias, nonverbal bias, expectation anchor, contrast effect, and conformity bias.
How does unconscious bias affect recruitment?
Unconscious bias causes us to judge candidates based on our perceived ideas and notions of them, rather than their experience and skills.
Last updated: 15 May 2023