4 Unconscious Biases Hindering Your Recruiting (and How to Prevent Them)

September 22, 2016

Think about it for a second: do you get more excited about a hiring a candidate who went to the same school as you? Or, what about one who seems familiar – they talk, dress, and have the same values as you. I mean, who’s better than you?

Are you nodding? Well guess what – these are unconscious biases. And this particular example is affinity bias – or hiring in your own image.

Don’t feel too bad – this bias happens to all of us. In fact, all unconcious biases happen automatically in our brain and are based on social norms and stereotypes we grew up with. But, unconscious bias can be detrimental to hiring for a diverse and innovative work place. If everyone is just like you, everyone will have the same ideas and come to the same conclusions. And, that's not how great businesses are built.

What you can do about unconscious bias in recruiting

So, how can you change something you have absolutely no control over? For starters, just being aware of it to know how it affects your decision making helps. And this awareness has lead over 20% of large companies in the U.S. to have some kind of unconscious bias training for employees.

To help you get started in your fight against unconscious bias, we did some research and found four common biases that can cloud your judgement when hiring —and solutions to help you combat each  one of them:

1. Gender bias

This bias comes from long-existing social norms of the ideal worker or what the picture of success looks like, which generally involves a man.

For example, more than a decade ago, the Heidi/Howard Roizen study at Harvard Business School showed that when the exact same story was told with different names (Heidi vs Howard), participants said the woman Heidi was selfish and not “the type of person you would want to hire or work for," while the fictitious Howard came off as appealing.

In addition, Meghan Sumber, an Associate Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University, found in one of her studies that when a male voice says the word “academy,” listeners automatically assume he means a school, but when a female voice says it, the word is associated with award show - The Academy Awards (less scholarly). Sumner also found that even when a woman’s voice is thought to be trustworthy, clear, and comprehensible on its own, her credibility is lowered when her voice is compared to a man’s voice – even if the man’s voice was deemed as not-so-reliable or intelligent on its own.

All in all, when women are compared to men, they lose. And as you can imagine, this kind of “gendered listening” is a huge problem in hiring, as you might assume someone is best for the job, but you’re not really hearing what they’re saying.

Solution: In Iris Bohnet's book What Works: Gender Equality by Design, the behavioral economist at Harvard suggests structured interviews, where recruiters ask every applicant the same questions in the same order to avoid gender biass.

However, that won’t solve everything - research has found that humans tend to be terrible listeners. You might assume you’re hearing what the candidate is saying…but they’re really saying something else.

To combat this, Bohnet suggests recording the conversation through note-taking. Focus on exactly what the interviewee is saying when you take notes, not what you think they said (remember: Sumner’s gendered listening research).

Later, assign each candidate numbers on their answer sheets and go back and read each answer so that you can truly reflect on what the candidate is saying. The idea here is that you’ve forgotten which answer sheet belongs to which candidate by this point, so you can now focus on the candidate’s ideas and knowledge, rather than their gender, demeanor or their demographic characteristics.

You can also have candidates fill out their own performance-based questions and later, have the face-to-face interview for cultural purposes.

2. School bias

This is a prejudice or favoritism that that reveals itself when hiring occurs based on where someone went to school. How does this work? Students with similar backgrounds often end up going to the same universities (for example: students from wealthier families often end up at top universities), so your preferences for graduates from these schools can have a negative impact on diversity efforts.

Not to mention, companies typically go back to the same handful of schools to recruit upcoming graduates year after year, meaning they end up hiring people from the same socio-economic backgrounds.This creates an enviroment that lacks diversity of thought, which is detrimental to business

Solution: To create a more diverse workplace, companies like Deloitte have started implementing “university-blind interviewing” to ensure that whoever is recruiting isn’t unconsciously or consciously favoring a person who attended a certain school.

However, Deloitte’s Head of UK Resourcing Victoria Lawes says “university-blind interviewing” results in companies overlooking candidates from “disadvantaged or lower socio-economic backgrounds.” To negate this, Delliotte has teamed up with UK-based consulting company Rare to implement a screening process called “contextualisation,” which uses an algorithm that takes into account both public information and application data to identify applicants who have overcome tough situations. For example, which candidates received high marks in school despite coming from a low-income family or being the first in the family to go to college.

Consider implementing a similar screening process or asking questions during the interview that could help reveal this kind of information more quickly. Finally, as a recruiter, focus on getting to know the candidate, their experience, what they’ve overcome and what they can bring to the table before asking school and university backgrounds.

3. Racial bias

While you might no think so, racial bias often starts even before the face-to-face interview: when recruiters see a name at the top of a resume and their hidden prejudices results in whether or not that resume makes it to the next level.

For example, past research finds that applicants with white-sounding names experience 50% more callbacks than equally qualified applicants with black-sounding names. In order for applicants with stereotypical African-American-sounding names, such as “Lakisha Washington” or “Jamal Jones” to get the same number of callbacks as applicants with stereotypical white-sounding names like “Emily Walsh” or “Brendan Baker,” the black applicants need to send out five times more resumes.

Solution: This is a simple one, but consider covering up the names on resumes so that you can judge based on merit. The more you know about the biases that are affecting your hiring decisions, the better you can take actions to hiding this information from yourself so that you can make the best decision.

4. Affinity bias

We’re often most comfortable with people who we understand, who remind us of something familiar—and what is more familiar than ourselves? That’s where the affinity bias, or hiring in our self-image that we mentioned before comes into play.

This bias isn’t so much hiring someone who looks like you, but just reminds you of yourself—how you work, how you think, how you approach problem-solving. A lot of this “sameness” is also impacted by a company’s culture. For instance, the idea of culture fit is a kind of sameness that makes it easier for businesses to run smoothly. It’s that kind of sameness that’s also happens to be one of the most challenging barriers to diversity, inclusion, and innovation.

Solution: Since our affinity bias skews perspective, you may think that you’re hiring someone because they’re more qualified or a good cultural fit within your company, but have you considered if your company’s culture is preventing you from hiring diverse teams and hence, the best person for the job?

When you're interviewing someone and you don’t understand how they got to a solution or why they feel so strongly about something, consider asking them instead of ruling them out immediately as not fitting into your culture. Acknowledge that your first judgment about someone may not always be accurate, and expand your comfort zone to make better decisions.

Final thoughts

To better understand how biases affect you, try taking this popular online IAT developed by Harvard that screens for biases in race, gender, religion, age, weight and disability. Once you know, you can start making changes in order to hire the more diverse and creative teams that make for a succesfull business.

*Image by Okay Yaramanoglu

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