The importance of minimising and preventing the influence of unconscious bias in recruitment

October 28, 2019

There is a real value to recruiting employees who will be a great cultural fit for an organisation, but this should also be balanced with ensuring that unconscious bias does not mean a business unintentionally discriminates or misses out on employing fantastic talent.

Gill Buchanan, Chief Operating Officer at professional recruitment specialists Pure, explains: “Everyone has unconscious bias, it isn’t intended, it is based on social backgrounds and life experiences which can shape our views and influence our decisions without us even realising. However this can impact on recruitment and human resources decisions as people unintentionally categorise, stereotype or favour people they feel an affinity with. As well as the potential to miss out on hiring a great candidate and impacting on the ability to build and maintain an inclusive workforce, it can also affect an organisation’s overall talent pipeline. People are more likely to leave if they are unconsciously overlooked for career progression and development. This can lead to a less diverse senior team and as McKinsey’s ‘Delivering Through Diversity’ report showed, there is a statistically significant correlation between a more diverse leadership team and financial outperformance.

“So while gut feelings, shared values and cultural fit are still important, there also needs to be an awareness of minimising and preventing the influence of unconscious bias. Here are just some of the things organisations can consider.”

Staff training
The best tool to begin tackling unconscious bias is to make more people conscious of it in the first place. Raising awareness of what unconscious bias is and the impact it can unintentionally have on recruitment, workplace culture and business success will engage more people to look for ways to counter it. There are a wide range of training courses available, both on and offline, which can help people to identify their own bias, find out more about the potential legal implications and work together to challenge and reduce bias in recruitment and across the business as a whole.

Inclusive job descriptions
Recent studies, including by software company Textio, have shown that that many words commonly used in job descriptions are unconsciously seen as more masculine, such as competitive, dynamic and driven, while terms such as supportive and collaborative are more associated with women. Excessive jargon and acronyms can alienate people from outside of the industry, even if they have the skills and experience required, and not everyone would comfortably align themselves with being an ‘expert’ even if they have the desired level of experience. LinkedIn studies and an internal benchmark report by Hewlett Packard have also shown that an extensive list of essential requirements can impact on the diversity of applicants. This is because women only tend to apply for jobs if they feel they meet every requirement, whereas men will apply even if they only meet some. Before advertising a job description, read it again with unconscious bias in mind, ensure there are a mix of both masculine and feminine associated words, and only include what really is essential criteria, making it clear what is desirable but not vital.

Name blind recruitment
Removing certain information from candidate applications can help to prevent unconscious bias at the shortlisting stage. As well as identifying factors such as age and gender, even someone’s name can influence our thoughts by conjuring up perceptions or an association with someone we like or dislike. Other factors such as the name of the university someone went to or their personal interests can also spark unconscious bias. What pieces of information can be excluded depends on the type of role and what you are looking for in candidates, but it is worth exploring what can be removed at this stage to help the team evaluate applications just on skills and experience.

Diverse hiring committee
Because unconscious bias can involve unintentionally being drawn to hiring people like ourselves, making recruitment a team effort can help to prevent this. Ideally an interview panel will comprise a diverse team of people for a balance of different perspectives, but even having two people rather than just one can make a difference. It can also be really helpful to include people who are not so invested in the appointment, for example from another part of the business. However, even when it is a group effort, it is important to be aware of the potential for conformity bias. This is where people unconsciously follow suit and conform to the views of the majority of the team if they think they are favouring a particular candidate.

Interview templates and criteria
Having a structured interview process which is the same for all candidates will help to ensure the process is as fair as possible. Agree some set questions in advance and create a clear, objective scoring system for everyone in the recruitment process to follow. Including competency based interview questions, as used by Pure’s expert recruitment consultants, will help to keep the focus on establishing whether candidates have the relevant experience needed by asking for examples of when they have demonstrated particular behaviours or skills. However, there does need to be a balance between structure and providing a good candidate experience. Candidates still need to have the chance to shine, to ask their own questions and if the interview is too rigid and formulaic it may not reflect the overall culture of the business.

Outside perspectives
Helping to prevent unconscious bias during the recruitment process is another area where working with an external recruitment agency can really add value. Pure’s expert consultants can help by advising employers throughout the process and handling initial applications to create the interview shortlist. They can also sit in on interviews to provide a more diverse recruitment panel and an external perspective.