In order to build a more diverse and inclusive organization, companies should educate themselves about unconscious bias, and the many ways it manifests in their hiring process. That way, they can take a critical look at where they’re falling short, and what can be improved.
Let’s unpack what unconscious bias really is, and a few ways you can start tackling it in your hiring process.
Imagine this typical hiring scenario.
You are tasked with hiring a new salesperson for a remote team. There are five shortlisted candidates, each of them highly qualified for the role. And they all come from different countries, but one of them is from yours. Who do you pick?
Hiring a candidate from the same country as you could be an example of unconscious bias at play. Did you really hire them because they were the best, or was it something else?
To help us understand the answer, let’s take a closer look at the effects of unconscious bias within recruitment.
TL;DR – Key takeaways
Unconscious bias is a form of prejudice for or against certain groups or people. It usually takes place at the subconscious level, which is why raising awareness is the best way to address the different unconscious biases we each have.
Unconscious biases in recruitment can lead to poor decisions in hiring, resulting in a lack of diversity, bad hires, potential legal issues, and missing out on great talent.
To complicate things, there can also be conscious biases at play. We think of the world in terms of categories, and biases are neat mental shortcuts to make decisions more quickly.
There are many different types of bias in hiring. We cover 13 in this article, and while they all differ in nuances, they have one thing in common: they shift the focus from skills and qualifications to other less relevant traits.
Research shows that raising awareness is more effective than unconscious bias training, which might do more harm than good in encouraging diversity in the workplace.
The best way to combat unconscious bias is to hire based on skills rather than gut feelings. While some instinct is good, the primary way to determine if a candidate is a good fit should be a measurable test of their hard and soft skillset.
What is unconscious bias?
Unconscious bias is when someone is prejudiced towards a certain thing, person, or group. According to Dushaw Hawkett, there are 3 characteristics that differentiate unconscious bias from other types of prejudices.
Unconscious biases operate at the subconscious level. In other words, we are unaware of them and cannot access them through introspection.
Unconscious bias can run contrary to our conscious beliefs.
Unconscious biases are mental shortcuts triggered through rapid mental associations we make between people and objects.
Unconscious biases occur very frequently in our daily lives, but they are dangerously common in hiring.
You can’t have a diverse team if your hiring process is intentionally or unintentionally designed for people similar to you to win.
What is unconscious bias in recruitment?
In recruitment, unconscious bias happens when someone forms an opinion – good or bad – of a candidate based on factors irrelevant to their skillset and experience – like age, gender, education, or race – that (unfairly) influences the hiring decision.
Some practical examples include favoring or disregarding a candidate based on their physical appearance, where they went to university, favorite hobbies, or where they worked before.
It happens more often than you might think and canoccur at any stageof the hiring process:
The CV is often the first touchpoint between the hiring manager and the candidate. Progressing someone onto the next stage because they went to the same high school as you or rejecting their application because they have an employment gap are prime examples of unconscious bias.
If your hiring process includes an assessment, deciding to progress a candidate that performed worse than a candidate you decided not to continue with based on something like their gender or a trait you liked is another unconscious bias example.
The interview stage is often the make-or-break point in the hiring process, and some candidates might even use your unconscious bias against you to win your favor. For example, by claiming to be a huge football fan like you.
Allowing unconscious bias to influence a hiring decision is not only unfair, but by not hiring the best person for the job, it can also impact performance.
Is unconscious bias really unconscious?
According to the University of California San Francisco, research shows that unconscious biases happen because of our tendency to organize the social world by categorizing. We put people in boxes, and we do it pretty consciously. For example, thinking that women are better teachers because of their motherly instincts and empathy or that men make better surgeons.
We don’t do it because we’re bad people with an explicit bias. We do it because it makes decision-making easier. So yes, a good part of unconscious bias is actually conscious. However, it is often wrong and can lead to incorrect assumptions.
Why is it important to reduce implicit bias?
At this point, you might be thinking, but is it really so wrong to hire someone with the same background or interests as you? Well, yes. Here are a few reasons why:
Lack of diversity
You’re hiring an army of yes men who think and act the same way. This hinders innovation in your team and could get them stuck in loops, doing the same things all the time. Not to mention, sets a pretty monotonous standard for what it takes to join the team. As a result, say goodbye to a diverse workforce.
Losing out on great talent
Think of all the amazing candidates you could be losing out on by making hiring decisions based on criteria irrespective of their skills and talent – ouch.
High risk of bad hires
Since you’re hiring based on gut feelings and not the actual skills required for the job, you might be unpleasantly surprised when the person you liked doesn’t actually know how to do their job well!
Most countries have anti-discriminatory laws against hiring biases, conscious or unconscious. If you’re caught hiring based on someone’s appearance rather than their skills, for example, it could lead to costly lawsuits down the road. And worst of all, it might impact your reputation as an employer.
How you can mitigate the risks of unconscious bias
One way you might rely on to combat bias in the workplace and prevent it from happening is some good old unconscious bias training.
Conscious awareness about our biases and a willingness to fix them.
Like any shift in behavior, deep understanding must come before meaningful change can occur. And an excellent place to begin tackling the various types of bias in the workplace is first to understand the various forms it can take and analyze how it might be present in your organization.
13 Types of unconscious bias
There are several different sorts of unconscious biases that can manifest in the hiring process.
Here are some unconscious bias examples to look out for and some handy tips for getting rid of them.
1. Affinity bias
Affinity bias happens when we favor a candidate because they share a trait or characteristic with us. It may feel easier to relate to such candidates if you both attended the same university or grew up in the same hometown.
Affinity bias is crucial for the cultural fit that so many companies yearn for. Founders want a tight-knit team of like-minded people, which is why affinity bias reigns supreme as a hiring aid in many early startups.
A solution: To avoid affinity bias, try spending equal time evaluating candidates that seem familiar or unfamiliar to you at first glance. You may learn that you have much more in common than you initially thought if only you took the time to get to know them better.
2. Attribution bias
Attribution bias happens when we make assumptions about people’s actions and intentions based on previous interactions we’ve had with them.
For example, if you notice a candidate tends to change jobs frequently, you might assume they’re a job hopper and will move on from their next job in a few months. You immediately assume that they are the problem instead of considering the myriad of complex reasons that could’ve led to their recent work pattern.
A solution: Work to recognize whether your thoughts about a candidate are based on information or assumption. If they are based on assumption, stop, and ask the candidate instead. Be mindful of phrasing questions in accusatory ways.
Asking, “What factors contributed to you deciding to leave your last position?” is much better than “Why haven’t you stayed in a job for more than 4 months?” We bet you’ll be surprised by the answers more often than not.
3. Confirmation bias
Confirmation bias is a type of unconscious bias that happens when we draw conclusions about people, situations, and even data, that only serve to reinforce what we already believe to be true. It is a sort of ‘selective sight’. We only ‘see’ what confirms our existing beliefs, disregarding or even forgetting information to the contrary.
For example, a bit like finding the perfect partner, it can be hard to see or admit the flaws in a favored candidate. In recruitment, hiring managers might feel like they found the perfect candidate, and everything they focus on from that point on is aimed at proving themselves right. In such cases, they will ignore the red flags raised by others in the hiring team and struggle to take a step back and analyze them more objectively.
A solution: Look at your candidates’ skills before considering anything else. This will allow you to shortlist candidates based on ability alone. You will end up with a much more diverse interview pool if the only factor you’re assessing is a test score. Toggl Hire to screen candidates based only on skill is an easy way to boost diversity and inclusion and combat bias in the hiring process.
This kind of unconscious bias happens when we compare two or more candidates we’ve encountered. Receiving an exceptionally strong application subconsciously sets a standard in our mind, and all the applications from that point on seem inferior.
The problem with the contrast effect is that it lacks objectivity. It skews expectations away from reality and can make a promising candidate seem mediocre or poor candidates seem great. Both are lose-lose scenarios because you never end up with the best person for the job; you end up with the ‘best’ person from the bunch you’ve seen.
A solution: Having an objective benchmark against which to judge applications is a good place to start. Compare candidates to the objective mark instead of to each other.
5. Gender bias
This is one of the simplest and most easily understood types of implicit biases. It happens when we unconsciously think a candidate’s suitability for a job, industry, or position is influenced by their gender.
Some examples of gender bias are the old-fashioned unconscious beliefs that men are better suited to high-logic professions like physics, whereas women are better suited to caring roles like nursing or education.
A solution: Ensure you’re using gender-neutral language wherever possible in order to not exclude a specific gender from applying to the role. This is especially relevant for job ads and descriptions for roles in male or female-dominated industries.
Textio is a great tool that analyzes your job ads and suggests language tweaks you can make to make them more inclusive and immune to gender bias.
6. The halo effect and the horns effect
The halo effect is somewhat similar to confirmation bias. With these implicit biases, we notice something particularly impressive about a candidate – a “halo”- we are promptly blinded to less preferable features about that candidate.
For example, if you notice that a candidate used to work for Google, you may give them an unconscious advantage over other applicants. Surely, someone who worked at Google must be a good fit for your team, right? This is an example of thinking based on assumptions rather than information.
The opposite of the halo effect is called the horns effect. It happens when you focus on one particular negative trait of a candidate and ignore everything else—for example, judging a candidate entirely based on the fact that they dropped out of university, despite a strong work history since then.
A solution: Don’t focus on what the candidate achieved in the past in their workplace. Instead, focus on what they can do for you in the future. Evaluate their skills and the ability to get the job done, rather than trusting a reference from 10 years ago and using it as your main hiring criterion.
7. The overconfidence bias
The name of this bias is pretty self-explanatory. When a recruiter or someone on your hiring team is feeling too confident about their ability to make good decisions, they will use their gut feeling as guidance for hiring rather than facts.
For example, let’s say a candidate shined in the interview process because of impeccable communication skills. And so the HR lead decides to put them through to the next round without testing their skills because they “have a feeling” that the candidate is a star. This is not only unfair treatment to the rest of the applicants, but could also lead to problems after this candidate is hired.
A solution: No matter how reliable is your gut instinct, always make sure to assess your candidates fairly, for example, with a skills test, to help avoid overconfidence bias. If they are truly exceptional, the hiring test will only confirm your assumptions before you welcome them into the workplace.
8. Beauty bias
It’s a strange but perhaps unsurprising fact that people who “look good” get paid an average of 10-15% more than their counterparts in the United States. Good looks pay off in personal and professional lives, as it turns out.
Beauty bias occurs when someone decides to go forward with or hire those candidates they perceive as beautiful. They might even think that their looks will help them do the job better, like a receptionist or hostess working in front-of-house, even though it’s not necessarily true.
A solution: Blind hiring, skills testing in the pre-screening stage, or doing first-round interviews over Zoom or Meets with the camera off are just some ideas to help avoid beauty bias. And with Toggl Hire, you can test all your prospective candidates well before putting a face to their names.
9. The primacy and recency effect
As the name suggests, this implicit bias happens when we favor candidates that we saw first. For example, if someone was the first to interview for a role, we might remember them the most vividly – or fondly!
Similarly, recency bias occurs when the hiring team favors the most recent candidates they interviewed or screened. Since they are still fresh in your hiring team’s memory, they might leave the biggest impression and affect their hiring decisions.
A solution: One way to help overcome such biases is to take detailed notes to help when comparing candidates or try using a candidate scorecard for interviews. Interview scorecards are a practical tool for hiring managers to support their decisions with real, quantifiable data.
10. Status quo bias
As the name suggests, this type of bias is when hiring managers shy away from making any changes to the status quo. Especially for homogenous teams like an all-male developer squad or a sales team that all used to work together at another company, hiring managers may feel reluctant to introduce any changes.
Let’s say you have a team of marketers who are keen on doing things the old way – racking their brains over copy, Mad Men style. While interviewing a copywriter, he or she suggests using AI tools, but the existing team isn’t on board. A status quo bias would prevent you from making this hire because the new copywriter would have to go against your existing team.
A solution: A breath of fresh air and some diversity can be an amazing thing for your workplace. But of course, even the best of us can be resistant to change. In this case, you’ll need to persuade them of the benefits of the coming changes and outline a plan of action for dealing with any resulting conflict.
11. Anchoring bias
Also known as anchor bias or expectation bias, it happens when we’re “anchored” to a specific idea and have expectations based on it. For example, you had a fantastic developer named Fred who was incredible in team meetings. He led the conversation, made sure it stayed on track and inspired the rest of the team. Then, Fred leaves.
When looking to replace him, you employ a similarity bias and ignore candidates with exceptional hard skills just because they don’t have the one trait you’re anchored for.
A solution: Lead the hiring process with objective, measurable skills to avoid anchor bias. Compare candidates against one another on their ability to get the job done and not a trait that you would love them to have above everything else.
12. The affect heuristic
It might sound complex, but the affect heuristic happens when we let emotions get the best of us while hiring. In other words, when we make decisions based on how we feel at the moment rather than an objective perception of a candidate.
Let’s say that a hiring manager is going through a difficult personal issue, something with their children. And during the course of the interview, they discover that the candidate is going through the exact same thing. This could cause them to favor the candidate over others because of an emotional connection.
A solution: Have more than one person attend important interviews to get multiple opinions. And, of course, base your decisions on tangible criteria like how well they answered the interview questions or performed on a skills test.
Peer pressure is incredibly powerful and happens in our everyday lives – not just in the workplace. Conformity bias is when a group of people agrees on a matter, forcing even those who are against it to conform.
In practice, imagine a candidate that scored high on their skills test but did just okay in their interview compared to other candidates. Three out of five people on your team think they should go forward, but the results tell you otherwise. Since you’re in the minority, you go along and progress the candidate.
A solution: Data and facts are your friends when seeking to avoid conformity bias. Make your hiring decisions independently and stick to your guns when it comes to who goes further in the hiring process. Your aim is not to agree with your coworkers – it’s to hire the best person for the job.
How to battle different types of unconscious bias
Now that we’ve seen the many unconscious biases that could occur, their examples and possible solutions, it’s time to sum up some of those key lessons.
Hire people based on their skills
rather than any of their traits. Use objective measures like scorecards and skills tests to determine whether the candidate can get the job done or not, and make this your primary standard for who gets hired.
Involve several people in the hiring process
We all have our unconscious biases, and a great way to overcome them is to consider multiple opinions and viewpoints when evaluating who you want to hire.
Raising awareness and holding each other accountable
is another best practice to adopt, as you may all uncover some subconscious associations, hidden biases, and patterns of thinking you weren’t previously aware of.
Accept that we all have biases, but always strive to be better
No matter how objective we try to be, unconscious bias affects all of us. Acknowledge this fact, try to understand your biases, and do the inner work to elevate your own conscious awareness.
It might feel uncomfortable initially, but normalizing these conversations while giving everyone a safe space to grow is vital to creating a diverse and inclusive workplace.
Skills-based hiring removes faces, ages, gender differences, racial bias, sexual orientation, location, education, background, and even previous work history. So that you can focus on hiring candidates based on what they can do and not who they are.
With Toggl Hire, create skills-based assessments or choose from an expansive library of tests to pre-screen candidates in the first part of the hiring process, and apply the advice in this article in the next stages!
Juste loves investigating through writing. A copywriter by trade, she spent the last ten years in startups, telling stories and building marketing teams. She works at Toggl Hire and writes about how businesses can recruit really great people.
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