Despite all the advancements we’ve seen in diversity and inclusion hiring over the last few decades, prejudice and stereotyping remain rampant at organizations across all industries. Making matters worse, you can’t always tell when it’s happening.
Few people would openly admit to being prejudiced. As it turns out, though, it’s possible to display such tendencies without being aware that you’re even doing it.
When this happens, it’s referred to as unconscious bias—also known as implicit bias. While unconscious bias is capable of impacting all areas of operations, it shows up frequently during the hiring process.
What is Unconscious Bias?
Unconscious bias refers to having unfounded assumptions or beliefs against individuals or groups of people. It can be applied to demographic data like race, gender, age, geographical location, or health. It can also be applied to socioeconomic data: Where did you go to school?
“The brain is like an association-seeking machine,” explains Mahzarin R. Banaji, a social psychologist and Harvard professor. “It puts things together that repeatedly get paired in our experience. Implicit bias is just another word for capturing what those are when they concern social groups.”
Banaji provides some examples of how unconscious bias can show up in the world.
“When I see that my mom puts out butter when she puts out bread, the two are associated in some way,” says Banaji. “But I also see other things in the world. I see as I walk down the street who the poor people are and who the rich people are, and where the one lives and where the other lives.”
These are just a few examples of biases — as you can see in this graphic from Diversity Australia, the list of potential biases goes on and on:
The Most Common Types of Unconscious Bias
Unconscious bias comes in many different forms. Here are some of the more common ones.
1. Affinity Bias
The next time you hit it off with a job applicant, take a step back and assess the situation. Ask yourself what it is that you like so much about that person. Could they resemble you in any way?
As it turns out, we tend to gravitate towards people who are like ourselves. This behavior is called affinity bias, and it can be very difficult to pick up on if you’re not actively aware of it.
2. Halo Effect
Think about a time when you heard a shocking story about someone and found it hard to believe. What you were experiencing is called the halo effect, or the tendency to focus on someone’s greatest attribute while ignoring negative characteristics or potential red flags.
We’ve all seen this before: A team of hiring managers is reviewing a job application, and the majority of them share negative feedback—putting pressure on colleagues to agree in order to avoid voicing a dissenting opinion.
Going along with a group when it goes against your better judgement is called groupthink. Oftentimes, it’s done out of good intentions—like maintaining harmony and preventing conflict. But it won’t always lead to the best decisions.
4. Gender Bias
Gender bias—or giving preferential treatment to a particular sex—is one of the most prevalent and destructive forms of unconscious bias in the workplace.
5. Perception Bias
Perception bias refers to the act of forming stereotypes around certain groups of people. For example, someone from Georgia may judge someone from New York City based on regionally enforced societal beliefs—and vice versa.
Today, perception bias tends to show up in politics. Any time someone is slandered purely for aligning their views with a particular group, perception bias is most likely at play.
6. Confirmation Bias
Confirmation bias occurs where people assign more weight to evidence that confirms their ideas while ignoring or undervaluing evidence that refute them.
For example, a recruiter who thinks highly of veterans may justify hiring an individual based on having prior military service while ignoring their lack of technical skill or spotty employment history.
Why Unconscious Bias in Hiring is Harmful
As the above examples show, there are many types of unconscious bias to consider. If left unchecked, it can harm an organization in many different ways.
First and foremost, unconscious bias impacts job applicants. For example, one study found that only one-fifth of applicants who were not white, male, able-bodied, or from elite schools made it to a first-round interview. Yet when recruiters were blinded to those characteristics, 60 percent made it to the first round. Add it all up, and it’s clear that unconscious bias can sometimes disqualify a candidate based on demographic information alone.
Unconscious bias can also impact worker performance. Another study revealed that employees at large companies who perceive unconscious bias are about three times as likely to be disengaged at work. What’s more, those who perceive bias are more than three times as likely to say they’re planning to leave their job within a year. And they’re 2.6 times more likely to say they’ve withheld ideas and market solutions over the previous six months.
At this point, you’re probably wondering if unconscious bias can even be corrected or if it’s a natural—and unfortunate—human characteristic that’s simply innate.
While it’s not easy to change the way people think, it is possible to take active measures to protect against unconscious bias in hiring.
How to Eliminate Unconscious Bias in Hiring
Here are some things that you can do to ensure a fair and inclusive hiring process with minimal bias.
1. Be Mindful About What You Write
One place where confirmation bias tends to show up is in written communication. This may include company policies, job descriptions, and marketing content.
For example, you may use the word “fearless” to describe a data scientist who is unafraid to tackle complex problems or unanswered questions. However, using this type of word could inadvertently skew your description to favor men.
So, consider your word choices before posting any job descriptions. Consider using neutral language to ensure your copy is fair and inclusive. You should also consider using a tool like Textio, which analyzes millions of monthly postings and provides guidance and feedback on how to improve job descriptions.
2. Provide Bias Awareness Training
You may not be able to change someone’s opinion about a particular group or individual. However, a little bit of education and training can go a long way in helping people understand when they may be committing unconscious bias.
Round up your team and provide a rundown of unconscious bias, offering tips, suggestions, and tools for keeping interviews purely objective.
For example, you may want to encourage them to use a tool like Interviewing.io, which offers voice-changing technology to mask a candidate’s ethnicity and gender during an interview.
3. Use Blind Sourcing and Resume Screening
One of the best ways to shield your company from unconscious bias is to use software to remove age, gender, and race data during candidate sourcing.
For example, SeekOut offers a blind hiring tool that enables recruiters to screen profiles based purely on users’ credentials, publications, and abilities.
Here’s an example:
In addition, SeekOut offers many filters to help with diversity hiring initiatives. Recruiters can use these filters to search for specific genders, race, or credentials (e.g., military status).
As you can see, unconscious bias is a widespread problem with no simple solution. However, by understanding it and accepting its existence, you can play an active role in reducing it at your company, making your organization more open and inclusive while enjoying better business outcomes.