How to Reduce Unconscious Bias in Recruitment

by Mike Tannian on May 23, 2022

Learn how to reduce bias in the hiring process by revamping your recruitment strategy to increase the diversity in your organization and improve the candidate experience.

Article Highlights:

Bias is unavoidable in all of us. It's a preference in favor of or against a thing, like food or even groups, like your favorite sports team. 

Everyone has biases, even if we're not aware of them.

When we experience unconscious bias, we don't control it. People make near-instantaneous assumptions and opinions about other people. Unconscious bias is a mental shortcut that can help people process information, but it can have negative side effects in the workplace.

While you can't eliminate unconscious bias in people, you can control whether your organization recognizes it and works to eliminate the influence of unconscious bias in the hiring process. It's a worthwhile effort because, when left unchecked, bias can cause workplace diversity problems, lower morale, reduce innovation and performance, lead to conflict, and cause employee retention issues.

We'll discuss methods for removing unconscious bias in recruitment and selection, how to avoid making a biased hiring decision, and ways to greatly expand and improve your recruitment funnel.

What is Unconscious Bias in Recruitment?

Unconscious bias is like a blind spot – we hold perceptions about certain groups of people but we may not even be aware of them.

That means during the recruitment process, we may do things like favor male applicants over female applicants or white applicants over minority candidates. These common biases can hinder an organization's recruitment efforts because BIPOC and female candidates may avoid applying for your organization, causing you to lose out on some outstanding talent during what is already proving to be a talent shortage.

Examples of Unconscious Bias in Recruitment

Cognitive biases come in many different forms and cover many different preferences. It can mean favoring someone who looks like us, inflating someone's value based on important personal experiences, or making a judgment about a person's abilities based on their name and background. Let’s dig into a few examples of these implicit biases.

  • Affinity bias, or similarity bias, is when people tend to connect with others who have similar experiences, backgrounds, or interests. For example, when you hire someone just because they went to the same college as you, or because you like the same hobbies. As Harvard Business School said, companies may engage in affinity bias when they hire for "culture fit" because of a shared alma mater, or even just a preference for one name over another. We even engaged in affinity bias by quoting Harvard Business School, counting on name recognition to better make our point. When companies hire for culture fit, they tend to fall into the affinity bias trap.
  • Attribution bias means you judge a person's behavior based on prior observations, interactions, or expectations. For example, if someone is late to an interview, hiring managers might conclude that the person didn't really want the job when in reality, they had a flat tire. Discarding a résumé because of a single typo is another example.

  • Appearance bias usually includes weight bias, height bias, and beauty bias. These can happen when you believe attractive people, tall people, or slender people are more competent and qualified based on those attributes. Similarly, it can mean under-valuing a qualified candidate because they're short, overweight, or less attractive. For example, one study found that someone who is 6 feet tall earns $166,000 more over a lifetime than someone who is 5 feet, five inches.

  • Confirmation bias happens when we make a conclusion about someone based on attributes like where they went to college, where they lived, their volunteer efforts, or even their name. It usually happens when a recruiter makes a judgment about a candidate and then looks for factors to back up their decision.

  • Contrast effect happens when you compare two different candidates, usually one after the other. A great interview with one candidate may lead to over-exaggerating their performance or under-exaggerating the performance of the other candidate.

  • Gender bias is the preference of one gender over another. It's also called sexism.

  • Halo effect is when a candidate is placed on a pedestal after they reveal something impressive about themselves. For example, a job candidate who climbed Mt. Everest 10 years ago is held in higher esteem because of this accomplishment, even though they have otherwise average skills.

  • Horn effect is the opposite, where an otherwise-suitable candidate is thrown into a pit after the hiring team learns something negative about them – even if it's a particular behavior or mannerism (e.g., not hiring someone because they smoke).

  • Conformity bias is a form of peer pressure or groupthink when one person changes their behavior to match the beliefs and attitudes of the group. If most of a hiring panel wants a certain type of candidate, individuals in the group may agree with the majority rather than go against them, thus missing out on some excellent talent.

You may also hear the term perception bias, which is another way of talking about unconscious bias. It happens when "our perception is skewed based on inaccurate and overly simplistic assumptions about a group a person 'belongs' to." All of the biases described above fit the definition of perception bias.

7 Best Practices to Avoid Unconscious Bias in Recruitment

Like most people, we like to think we're not biased and we don't have these kinds of thoughts and feelings, but the truth is we all have them. All of us.

Rather than letting people's opinions dominate the organization's hiring decisions, learn how to avoid unconscious bias in recruitment by rooting it out of your hiring process. Let’s look at seven best practices on how to reduce bias in the hiring process.

1. Create a diverse hiring committee. 

Have them examine where your current hiring process might have some problems and create hurdles for different people.

For example, disqualifying a candidate because of a résumé typo may actually be an attribution bias because the HR pro thinks the candidate is lazy. But it might actually mean you missed out on an otherwise-excellent candidate with dyslexia or someone who speaks English as a second language. Your hiring committee can help you spot those biases and point out the things you might not see.

2. Audit your hiring process. 

Assess and overhaul the way you find job candidates, interview them, and bring them into your organization. Then you can see where bias manifests in the process. It could range from the language in your job descriptions to who you invite for interviews to the way you evaluate candidates.

As you audit your hiring process, you may find that your team tends to hire people similar to themselves. Or they may have biases about race, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, age, attractiveness, disability, education level, where people went to school, where they grew up, or other characteristics.

Evaluate the stages of your organization's hiring process and ask yourself the following questions.

  1. Applied: Are you getting enough diverse applicants? Are you posting job openings in the right places so they're seen by a diverse pool of candidates?
  2. Eligible: Are the criteria used to evaluate the candidates objective or are you relying on gut feelings and hunches?
  3. Referred: What criteria do you use to decide whether eligible candidates make it to the referred stage? How do you determine which candidates are sent on to the hiring manager?
  4. Interviewed: Do you interview all referred candidates? Are there unconscious biases in the hiring manager?
  5. Offered: Are diverse candidates getting job offers? Does the number of diverse candidate offers equal the ratio of diverse candidates that are referred?
  6. Hired: Have you created goals for each stage of the hiring process? Are you working to meet them with each new job opening?

3. Commit to making data-driven decisions. 

Analyze the makeup of your workforce and see where you're missing out. For example, does your workforce skew primarily white and/or male? Make a commitment to recruit more diverse candidates by interviewing a certain percentage of racially diverse candidates for each position. Set recruiting and hiring goals to increase the ethnicity, gender, and veteran status of applicants and employees as part of your agency's DEI efforts.

Making data-driven decisions also means tracking important HR statistics such as time to hire, cost of hiring a candidate, and the quality of the candidates you hired. If you found that your recruiting efforts on paid job boards led to long hire times, higher costs, and lower quality candidates, would that affect how often you used the job boards? You can make similar findings based on referral programs, career fairs, and college recruiting.

Use an applicant tracking system like NEOGOV’s Insight to monitor these metrics and see what your ideal candidates have in common. You can analyze a large candidate pool and identify the ones who fit the criteria you've established for your ideal candidate. Then, narrow down the candidates until you find the best, most talented candidates, and take them through the rest of the hiring process.

4. Create a structured interview process. 

A standardized process can help overcome unconscious biases in interviews. After all, your gut feelings may often be based on biases you're not even aware of. To avoid that, you need to bring more consistency to your hiring process.

Avoid an unstructured interview by developing a standard set of interview questions to ask every candidate. Make sure they focus on a person's qualifications, then evaluate the answers using a predetermined set of criteria and discuss the candidates' performance with coworkers rather than making a lone decision.

5. Use a candidate relationship manager (CRM) and an applicant tracking system (ATS). 

These software tools give you a way to screen and score candidates based on keywords, experience, and other parameters. Make sure your ATS can integrate with other background check and assessment providers. An ATS can also generate reports for EEO and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives.

NEOGOV’s Insight is an applicant tracking system built to serve public sector organizations. It automates the hiring process and meets compliance requirements, helping you efficiently attract and hire high quality candidates while reducing time to hire.

If you’re looking for a comprehensive solution to streamline your agency’s recruitment process, schedule a free Insight demo today. 

6. Blind the application process to limit implicit bias. 

Confirmation bias might lead a recruiter to make judgments about a candidate based on their name. One Harvard study found that Black and Asian candidates who "whitened" their names on their résumés received a 25% and 21% increase in callbacks, respectively.

Blinding the application process is the process of stripping résumés, certifications, portfolios, and other application documents submitted of any personally identifiable information (PII) that could impact the candidate’s chances of being fairly evaluated. PII can include a person's name, address, gender, race or ethnicity, age, school/college, graduation date, and past employers.

Doing this can reduce the impact of different unconscious biases during the hiring process – and increase the ratio of BIPOC and women candidates in your recruitment.

NEOGOV offers this feature as part of its Recruit module.

7. Measure and analyze the impact of your efforts. 

Adjust your approach based on what you learn – and then measure it again. Your analysis should be an ongoing effort as you hone and perfect your hiring process. It's a major effort that will likely challenge your employees to think differently about their future colleagues, and may even help them confront their own unconscious biases.

NEOGOV's Insight offers data visualization and analysis with more than 90 standard reports, advanced ad-hoc reporting, adverse impact statistics, and dashboards to help you reach your ideal standard.

Final Thoughts

Confronting and understanding unconscious bias in recruitment leads to a more inclusive and diverse workforce. And by incorporating diversity goals into your recruitment strategy, you can strengthen your organization's commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

Creating a diverse hiring committee and auditing your hiring process are important steps in reducing hidden biases in recruitment. You also need to make data-driven decisions and create a structured interview process to standardize the candidate experience and more easily analyze your results. Plus, make your recruiting strategy that much stronger by using a CRM or ATS to blind the application process and measure your efforts for continual improvement.

You can learn more about reducing bias and creating a more personalized candidate experience throughout your recruitment process by visiting our website.

How to Solve Government Recruiting Needs

Mike Tannian

Mike Tannian is the Director of Content Marketing at NEOGOV. With a talented team of writers by his side, he aims to produce content that delivers real value to public sector HR professionals at every stage in the buying journey.