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Unconscious Bias in Recruitment: Examples & How to Avoid It

Boss shaking the hand of a new hire

Everyone is biased. We all have our own preconceptions and prejudices, and we all make assumptions about other people - often without even realising we're doing so.

This is all part of being human, and it's not a problem as long as you don't allow your biases to affect the decisions you make. Unfortunately, there are still a lot of powerful decision-makers in the world who (consciously or otherwise) make choices largely based on stereotypes and their own flawed preconceptions.

This is a particularly contentious issue in the world of recruitment. While the recruitment industry has made great progress on this front in recent years, unconscious bias is still rife; you don't have to look very hard to find stories of, for example, women who struggled to find employment until they switched to more gender-neutral names, or people of Middle Eastern and African heritage who were able to improve their job application success rate by assuming white British identities.

This happens not because UK employers are unabashedly sexist or racist, but because one's unconscious prejudices sometimes limit one's ability to make an impartial decision. However, there are ways to avoid unconscious bias in recruitment, and that's what we're going to look at today.


What is unconscious bias?

Unconscious biases are assumptions you make about people without realising it (that is, unconsciously) and without any evidence to support those assumptions.

In recruitment, unconscious bias is a problem because it can lead employers to make irrational hiring decisions that are based on stereotypes or personal preconceptions rather than on what the candidate actually brings to the table.

Most conversations about unconscious bias in recruitment revolve around racism, sexism and so on - and as we've already mentioned, it is certainly true that women and minorities sometimes find it harder to get hired as a result of unconscious bias. But unconscious bias is much broader than that (technically including any judgement you make subconsciously and without strong evidence), and false assumptions can be positive as well as negative.

Examples of unconscious bias in recruitment

Here are some examples of unconscious bias in the context of a job interview:

  • The candidate speaks with an accent that you find unpleasant, giving you the false impression that they are unintelligent or otherwise unsuitable for the job.

  • The candidate is similar to you in some way (perhaps you are both the same age, support the same football team, or come from the same place), making it easier for you to overlook their flaws.

  • The candidate is a lot younger than you, and you unconsciously believe that young people don't work as hard as those closer to your own age.

  • The candidate speaks eloquently and has a good sense of humour, so you assume that they possess the technical skills needed to do the job properly. (This is an example of the 'halo effect', where your positive overall impression of someone clouds your judgment of their abilities.)

Unconscious biases may be compounded by confirmation bias. This is where you focus on information that supports your preconceived views while ignoring anything that contradicts them. For instance, if you've already decided - based on prejudice alone - that a candidate is lazy, you might pay undue attention to a brief gap in their employment history while disregarding all the volunteer work they've done and the glowing reference you received from their previous employer.

How do you avoid unconscious bias when hiring?

It's impossible to be completely unbiased. First impressions can be very powerful, even when they're based on something trivial like someone's appearance or speech pattern.

That being said, there are a number of steps you can take to limit the impact of your unconscious biases on your hiring decisions:

  • Adopt a 'blind' recruitment policy. Many companies have managed to reduce unconscious bias during the first stage of the hiring process by asking applicants to omit any identifying details from their submissions. It's far easier to make a truly impartial judgment of a candidate's quality if their job application does not mention their name, sex, age, etc.

  • During the interview, keep small talk to a minimum. Chatting to interviewees is risky: it's a great way to learn things about them that aren't remotely relevant to the job, but may still taint your opinion of the candidate. So focus on subjects that are directly related to the job instead of asking them how they spent the weekend. (You should also endeavour to ask the same questions of every candidate you interview; this helps to create a reasonably level playing field and gives everyone the same opportunities to impress you.)

  • Avoid asking inappropriate questions. When interviewing a potential employee, it's important to avoid asking them about protected characteristics like their marital status, religious beliefs, nationality, etc. It's against the law to base your hiring decision on any of these characteristics, and the best way to make sure this isn't a factor is to refrain from asking such questions in the first place. Click here to learn more about inappropriate interview questions.

  • Keep a record of why you hired or rejected each candidate. Writing down your reasons for doing so may force you to confront unconscious biases that you would otherwise have remained blind to. This practice can also help you to spot patterns in your hiring decisions - if you notice that candidates from one group are almost always successful, while candidates from another group are consistently rejected, you should take a closer look at why this is the case.

Now it's over to you: how do you avoid unconscious bias during the recruitment process? Let us know on social media!

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