Given that 76% of job seekers and employees say that inclusion efforts in the workplace are important to them, it’s readily apparent that diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) has become imperative for companies. To this end, organizations are looking for strategies and solutions to eliminate bias within recruitment and hiring processes. It’s a good place to start, too, since this is often the “first impression” that candidates get when they first engage with your organization.
In the operative sense, bias is any function, process or policy that favors members of one group to the detriment of members of another group. Given today’s culture and sensibilities, of course this negatively impacts morale, innovation and poisons the workplace environment—precisely the opposite of what businesses need to succeed.
How Does Hiring Bias Look?
As many of the recent studies tell us, we all have biases around one thing or another—including types of people, as much as we would like to think otherwise. So, it stands to reason that recruiters and managers with hiring responsibility have as much of a chance in bringing biased viewpoints into their hiring decisions as anyone else.
What does hiring bias look like? Depending upon who you ask, or which study you’re consulting, it can seem that there’s a dizzying number of manifestations and types of bias. Consequently, identifying and proactively addressing these can seem daunting. Actually, the proposition isn’t quite that complex.
In this context, we’ve heard a lot about conscious versus unconscious bias. While conscious bias is an intentional calculated choice to act with deference toward one person or group and disregard for another, unconscious bias (also called implicit bias) is any behavior that produces the same outcome, but which is performed unconsciously. In such cases, those exhibiting unconscious bias have no idea they’re acting with bias.
For example: A recent Yale University study revealed that female scientists who routinely hired people to work on their teams showed a preference for hiring men over women—even though they were themselves a women. It wasn’t necessarily their intention to favor men, but reflected their unconscious belief (also held by male scientists in the same study) that men “do science” better than women.
Suffice it to say that at this point, most people in our society believe that conscious bias has no place in any company. Hence, the push has been on to uncover areas of unconscious bias, so that these may be effectively addressed. Unconscious bias can be tricky, since we aren’t aware of it: A normalcy bias, for example—“We’ve always done X this way!”—is largely unconscious, but can be deadly in the business world, since it tends to resist change even when change is sorely needed.
For our purposes, we’ll take a quick look at a few examples of unconscious biases that can be particularly harmful in workplaces and in the recruiting process.
Affinity bias — When we identify or prefer someone who is like us, either in appearance, background, or beliefs.
Appearance bias — Though extremely superficial, this one still carries a lot of unmerited weight, and it has to do with making snap judgments based upon a person’s appearance (e.g., beauty, height, weight, hairstyle).
Confirmation bias — This has to do with our tendency to interpret information about others in ways that confirm what we already believe. Given that beliefs are subjective to start with, this can severely skew our thinking concerning others.
Gender bias — This translates into making associations based on a person’s gender, usually with origins in traditions, values, social norms, or culture. As we know, historically, unconscious gender bias has led to more favorable treatment of men as compared to women.
Age bias — Making judgments about people based on their age constitutes age bias. For example, younger workers/candidates are often viewed as being inexperienced or lacking judgment, while older workers/candidates are looked at as being outdated, behind-the-times or at the end of their ability to produce.
The Importance of Recognizing Bias
Since we’re largely discussing unconscious bias—which, as we’ve established, can be insidious because we tend not to know it exists—it becomes doubly important to make efforts to recognize it. While those on the receiving end can often more readily recognize bias, those engaging in unconscious bias are usually unaware of it.
The most important benefit of recognizing bias is of course that it provides opportunities for change. We’ve all heard the axiom that the first step in solving a problem is in recognizing that it exists. Overt remedial efforts in an organization in the area of biases also help both managers and employees to examine and correct their own unconscious biases and become more inclusive coworkers and leaders. Finally, by gaining an understanding of different types of bias, we facilitate effective, constructive conversation and change.
Steps to Eliminating Bias
According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), “A vast body of research shows that the hiring process is biased and unfair. Unconscious racism, ageism, and sexism play a big role in whom we hire.” With this sobering reality in mind, it becomes the responsibility of every company to take the necessary steps to recognize and reduce these biases. For many of the experts consulted across numerous studies, a lot of the recommendations are similar, though they may be prioritized differently.
Admit that bias exists. This is a necessary first step. It’s very easy for an organization to implement dedicated diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives whilst completely overlooking the unconscious bias of individuals (including hiring managers) in practice.
Learn what bias in recruitment looks like. Hiring managers and recruiters need to recognize what hiring prejudices are and how they operate. Here, training in awareness helps to unravel unconscious bias because it provides real insights into this dynamic and demonstrates that everyone possesses biases without assigning blame. This can help to foster organizational conversations about biases and creative, constructive methods to minimize them in the hiring process.
Inclusive job descriptions. A job description is a job description, right? Wrong. Many organizations are just beginning to understand the importance of the language they use in their job descriptions, and how these can serve to foster either inclusion or alienation on the part of an applicant/candidate. This is crucial, because job listings often provide a candidate with their first impression of your company’s culture. According to Forbes, even subtle changes in language can have a strong impact on applicants. For example, research has shown that there’s language which can be interpreted as masculine by female candidates, thus giving them the perception that they wouldn’t feel a sense of belonging in a given organization’s work environment.
Hiring Process Analysis. Since the hiring process is a series of steps, often conducted by a series of people, commit to analyzing each step of your hiring process. This will help you to determine at which junctures your risk for bias insinuating itself into the process lies. Once you’ve identified those that carry risk, you can take steps to resolve them.
Blind resume reviews. If you’re serious about focusing on a candidate’s qualifications, in the initial resume review, it might be helpful to take steps to ensure that this is the case. Research has shown that people with names that are demonstrably “ethnic” tend to get overlooked far more often—particularly for higher-level positions—than people with “traditional” Eurocentric names. Today, there are even software programs available that blind the process for you once you input the resume. This can help you improve your chances of including the most qualified candidates in your interview pool, sans bias.
A standardized interview process. Research in this area has shown that structured interviews where all candidates are asked identical questions minimize bias by allowing employers to focus on things that have the most impact on performance, whereas stream-of-consciousness, unstructured interviews are more likely to let the interviewer’s bias creep in. Some of the experts suggest using scorecards that grade candidates’ responses to questions using a standardized scale. Engaging cross-functional interview teams also reduces the chance of bias in the hiring process.
Work sample testing. Most of us have taken a work sample test (or skills test) at one time or another; these are simple tests that represent the kind of tasks the candidate would be performing on the job. These are said to be very reliable indicators of potential job performance, and facilitate employers’ insights into the candidate’s work, rather than unconsciously judging them based on appearance, gender, age, etc.
Set Organizational Goals. Setting diversity goals for your company are helpful, in that they serve to show where you’ve been, how far you’ve come, as well as where you’d like to go in terms of D&I progress. They help to keep diversity issues and bias top-of-mind in your organization as well as helping leaders track how well they’ve done against the diversity goals they’ve set forth.
Bias in hiring and in the workplace is something that leaders in any organization should be aware of, but it’s also important to capitalize on that top-down awareness in order to cultivate a culture of inclusion throughout the organization. The above recommendations should be useful in helping all managers and recruiters identify behaviors rooted in unconscious bias, thus strengthening the organization overall.