Unconscious bias in hiring: 4 tips to reduce the impact

When hiring for an open position, how do you decide who gets the job? While conventional wisdom says it should go to the person who is most qualified for the job, but the hiring process is a lot less impartial than you realize.

That’s because of unconscious bias, which is the kind of judgment that happens outside of our awareness. And yet, these biases often have an outsized impact on hiring, says Kimberly Butts, human resources generalist for HealthTechS3 and Gaffey Healthcare.

“Not me, I’m not biased,” you may be tempted to say. The first step in overcoming your unconscious bias, Butts says, is admitting it’s there.

“We’re all guilty of it,” she says. “We’re human, and that means we pass judgment all day long based on our own subjective experience of the world.”

But letting those judgments steer you toward one job candidate over another can spell disaster for your organization. Left unchecked, unconscious bias can negatively influence recruitment and hiring, not to mention hinder diversity and inclusion efforts, Butts says.

To illustrate her point, she offers two real-world examples of unconscious bias at work in the hiring process:

  • Among a pool of seemingly qualified candidates, one applicant stood out above the rest because she “looked polished” at the interview. Outward appearances meant professional, right? Not necessarily. Starting with the new hire’s first day on the job, it became clear that the job interview was all an act. She was terminated, after it was discovered that she falsified her resume and stole money from the company. But, she looked so polished!
  • A manager was excited about a new role on his team—and even more excited to get a young man in the position. HR pushed back and challenged this manager on his assumptions. Guess who got the job? Not a young man, but a 61-year-old woman.

Want to keep unconscious bias out of your hiring process? Butts shares 4 of her favorite tips:

1. Get educated

If step 1 is admitting that unconscious bias is a problem, step 2 is building your awareness. This is where awareness training can come in. Define terms and highlight examples, but go deeper, too. In other words, resist the urge to check a box after hosting a single lunch and learn. To be effective, unconscious bias training should take place on an ongoing basis and give attendees a chance to identify their own biases, challenge their own assumptions and change their own behaviors.

2. Fix your job descriptions

Did you know unconscious bias affects your hiring process before the first candidate even applies? Words matter—and that’s especially true when you’re talking about job descriptions. Adjectives like “hungry” might show age bias, while “winning” or “competitive” might invite gender bias. Looking for candidates from “top schools” could be perceived as elitist. No matter what biased language you unintentionally choose, you’re also unintentionally narrowing your applicant pool. So, how do you scrub your job descriptions of biased language? Read and re-read them with a careful eye, and then have someone else do the same.

3. Create anti-bias processes and procedures

It sounds counterintuitive, but of the best ways to eliminate a single decision-maker’s bias from the hiring equation is to introduce someone else’s. To start, always have more than one person conduct interviews. Speaking of interviews, trade unstructured conversations for standardized ones, making sure to ask each candidate the same set of questions. Eliminate bias even further by using a question scorecard to grade their answers. This elbows out things like “gut feelings” and allows you to compare the candidates more objectively.

4. Give a skills test If Butts had given that polished candidate a work sample test, she probably never would have been hired. Create and administer a test that will mimic the kinds of tasks the job candidate will be doing. “This is one of the best indicators of future job performance,” she says. “You’re letting the work speak for itself. And at that point, you’re judging the work, not the worker.”