Unconscious bias. It’s become a bit of a buzz-phrase in recruitment circles. But what is it? Essentially, unconscious bias is the ingrained assumptions, attitudes and stereotypes we have about other people, without realising it.

It occurs when we make spontaneous judgments about people or situations based on our past experiences, culture, or background.

For example, have you ever hired someone that reminds you of one of your friends? The likelihood is, you chose them, (in part) because of that association.

This is a subtle form of unconscious bias i.e., the feelings and opinions you associate with one person influences the way you view someone else.

The concept of unconscious bias puts a lot of people on edge, as it’s seen as ‘bad’.

But the truth is, we all hold unconscious beliefs – it’s how our brains are wired to work.

Consider this for a moment. Every second, our brains receive around 11 million pieces of information. That’s a mind-blowing amount. Around 50 of them are captured, while just 7 are processed by our working memory.

To filter this mass of information, our brains take cognitive shortcuts (they make spontaneous judgements), which can lead to bad or ineffective decisions.

Unconscious bias during the hiring process

In the workplace, unconscious, or implicit bias can become a problem when it affects others.

A whopping 96% of recruiters believe that it is a problem, and not just for the individuals being passed over for jobs and promotions. Unchecked unconscious bias can also hurt your organisation, as this whitepaper by HR Dive explains.

While we can’t magically become completely unbiased, we can take steps to minimise its impact at each stage of the recruitment process.

However, there’s more than one form of unconscious bias. Before you address them, you need to know what they are. Here’s the lowdown:

1. Learn the different types of unconscious bias

  • Affinity bias: favouring people who are similar to you over people who aren’t.
  • Attribution bias: making assumptions about whether or not external factors play a role in someone’s achievements or failures.
  • Confirmation bias: drawing conclusions based on your personal experiences and beliefs over facts.
  • Discrimination: favouring people from a dominant or majority group over those from a marginalised group.
  • Halo and horns effect: letting one trait control whether you believe someone is good or bad.

It’s easy to let bias affect your behaviour without you realising you’re doing it. But knowing how bias manifests is the first step towards making better, more self-aware choices.

2. Rework your job descriptions

Another thing to do before you start recruiting is to take a look at the job description. For example, there are tons of ways that even seemingly innocuous parts could be putting women off applying.

Are you using words like ‘dominant’, ‘competitive’, or ‘rockstar’? Research shows that masculine-coded language can be (consciously or unconsciously) off-putting to female applicants. If they feel like they’re not going to fit in or succeed, why bother applying?

Think about the wording you use. Are the terms you’re using associated with one gender over another?

While you’re there, cast a critical eye over the job requirements. Are they all, well, required? Because on average, men will apply for jobs when they meet over 60% of the criteria while women only apply if they hit 100%. If some of the requirements aren’t actually required, you run the risk of losing out on applications from perfectly qualified women.

3. Anonymise your CVs

William Shakespeare once wrote ‘what’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’.

Unfortunately, dear Will didn’t account for the fact that names have a huge influence on our choices.

Research has found that when it comes to hiring, recruiters tend to favour white candidates. When American researchers Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan submitted 5,000 identical CVs to recruiters, they found that the candidates with more stereotypically white sounding names received 50% more interviews than other candidates.

Bias surrounding names can show up in all kinds of ways. Say you’re stuck between Alan and John: if the late Alan Rickman is your favourite actor, or the kid who bullied you at school was called John, you might find yourself gravitating towards hiring Alan.

By taking names out of the equation, you can be sure that these sneaky biases aren’t influencing your decisions.

4. Take your time

Unconscious decisions are quick (remember the 11 million pieces of information a second?) but you don’t have to be. Sit down and think – really think – about why you rank candidates in a certain order. Do they have something in common with you? Do you think they have a particular characteristic that makes them better or worse for the job?

Consider what role unconscious biases might be playing in your thought process – you might find that your brain is cutting corners.

Building time into the recruitment process to slow down and really think might mean it takes a little longer to recruit the right person, but it’ll be worth it.

Looking for help in improving your recruitment process? Give us a call on 0203 750 3111.