Talent Acquisition Management

Unconscious bias and how to avoid it when making a hiring decision

Ratna Wright Ratna Wright

Towards the end of last year, I had the opportunity to attend our global conference in Vancouver and was honoured to listen to one of the gurus sharing a great deal of information around unconscious bias and why it’s important to be “bias aware”. It’s not easy, but when the concept is learnt and understood, it allows us to pause and think before we make any judgement or decision.

We all make decisions every day, including your decision to read this article right now. Every time you make a decision, your upbringing, social background, cultural values and life experiences influence your reasoning and your choices. Your experiences are crucial and beneficial for enabling you to make day-to-day decisions that align with your personal goals. When hiring/recruiting someone, however, these tendencies can lead to unconscious bias, which unfairly influences who you hire.

Unconscious bias refers to when you reach a speedy opinion about someone or a situation, without being consciously aware of doing so. Our brains often work by forming biases and utilising knowledge about attitudes, social situations, stereotypes, cultures, emotional reactions and so on. To a certain extent, we are all shaped through our own experiences and exposure to media throughout our lives.

Unconscious bias can significantly affect your judgement surrounding recruitment or when making any hiring decisions. While it is critical to draw upon your own experiences when assessing your candidates, this becomes an issue when you’re influenced by your assumptions, expectations, and preferences.

Even if our minds frame a bias positively, this can still lead to unfair favouring. Reining in your biases makes recruitment challenging, as gut feelings, first impressions and other types of influences count for so much during interviews. But avoiding unconscious bias is vital to avoid unfair or inaccurate judgements, overlooked talent, or in the worst situation, discrimination.

 

Types of Bias

At that session I attended, I learned about a few common types of biases in the workplace, particularly in recruitment, and I’d like to share some of them with you. By improving your awareness of the various types, you’ll become more aware of your personal biases. You will also strengthen your ability to make better or more informed decisions during the hiring process, ensuring that you acquire the best talent for your business.

Affinity Bias: This occurs when you unconsciously prefer someone you like, or who shares certain qualities with you. It can be called ‘mirroring’, because we all want to be around people who share similar traits to us, including experiences, or speaking the same language. For example: if a candidate went to the same university as you, or shares a similar hobby, you may prefer this candidate over others. Hiring people with similar qualities is easy to justify. For the best culture fit, businesses often want to bring aboard like-minded people – but bear in mind, you’re not looking for best friends at work! Affinity bias can blur your judgement of which candidate is the most sensible for the business. There is a real possibility that you would then hire fewer diverse personalities, which could mean fewer creative views and approaches to work. Moreover, it is unfair to discriminate in such ways. While a candidate may not be like you, they could be just as talented and friendly as those that are similar to you and that you prefer.

Attribution Bias: This type of bias is based purely on assumptions. For example, if you are not sure if the hiring manager will like that person, you may not put them forward as a short-listed candidate. Attribution bias refers to how you perceive your actions and those of others. It stems from our brain’s flawed ability to assess the reason for certain behaviours – particularly those that lead to success and failure. In recruitment, this can sway your view of a candidate’s performance. It can make you focus too hard on their faults, minimise their accomplishments, and potentially disregard a talented candidate.

Confirmation Bias: This idea refers to the way people look for bits of proof that back up their opinions, rather than looking holistically which leads to an unbiased observation. Most people tend to slip into this bias subconsciously because they are looking for a confirmation that their initial assessment of a person is correct. For example: “I knew we shouldn’t have hired her.” We may even act this way in order to back up other unconscious biases, so it is essential to keep this tendency in check. Otherwise, you may unfairly decide not to hire a candidate based on your faulty assessment.

 

While there may be more types of unconscious biases, being aware of the above is indeed a good start to managing yourself during the hiring process. You will start to notice these biases when you slip into a healthier mindset. However, you still might find it difficult to go against your subconscious values and opinions. Rerouting the way that you perceive and think can be more of a challenge than clearly noticing them. There are several techniques that you may wish to consider following to counter your unconscious biases, and I’d like to share them with you here:

  • Take your time when making hiring decisions. Try and look at them objectively, taking a holistic approach and understanding the real requirements for what is best for the business.
  • Try and include other people in the interviewing process. Others’ perceptions, views, thoughts, and opinions will help you spot and address preconceptions, which in turn helps reduce bias when hiring.
  • Always be honest with yourself. Biases are natural but it is important to control them. Having biases doesn’t mean that you’re a terrible person; we simply have to remind ourselves that we need to be open to change.

Other than what I have mentioned above, there may also be different ways in avoiding this or even eliminating these unconscious biases in the hiring process. One of the important ideas I learned from my colleagues from around the world, and from this particular guru from the conference, is that we educate and reinforce a culture of diversity. Doing so involves mandating that recruiters or hiring managers not consider race, gender, age, or religious beliefs, when evaluating and selecting candidates for any open positions.