3 Ways Unconscious Bias Could Be Creeping Into Your Recruiting Process

The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color and the widespread Black Lives Matte...

Posted by Lisa Farrell, Marketing Manager on July 22 2020
Lisa Farrell, Marketing Manager

The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color and the widespread Black Lives Matter movement have highlighted the systemic racial disparities at play in every level of daily life. Our work lives are no exception. But organizations can take advantage of this moment to examine how their own processes and systems have contributed to culturally embedded racial disparities in the workplace. For many this starts with recruiting processes.

Unconscious bias is frequently at play in recruiting. But in legacy processes, these biases can be hard to spot. At this moment when work is on the brink of changing in dramatic ways, it’s time to turn a more critical eye to “the way we’ve always done it” when it comes to recruitment and hiring.

Unexamined recruiting workflows often invite and perpetuate unconscious bias in recruitment. Here’s how to spot — and reduce — potential biases in your hiring process.

Hiring for Personality Perpetuates Bias

We’ve all heard the term “culture fit,” but that often boils down to hiring for personality or affinity. When reviewing resumes and interviewing candidates, we gravitate towards the familiar, points out Bree Gorman, a diversity and inclusion specialist and managing director at Bree Gorman Consulting. “We think of candidates who are similar to the previous incumbent as a perfect ‘fit’,” she says. “Similarly, we like working with people who we could see as a friend: It takes more work to feel comfortable around someone who is different from you.” But this preference leads to one of the most common biases in hiring, affinity bias, or a preference for people who are most like ourselves or people we know.

Affinity bias is compounded when recruiting processes are heavily referral-based. “When recruiting from networks within our own spheres of influence, we tend to replicate ourselves and our own personal preferences and values,” says Tiffany Jana, founder of TMI Consulting Inc and author of several books on institutional bias, most recently authoring “Subtle Acts of Exclusion.” Even when candidates aren’t sourced directly from within our own networks, Jana continues, we often privilege candidates who reflect aspects of our personal circles.

This directly impacts diversity. “My level of comfort with you is predicated on my level of cultural competency,” Jana points out. If recruiters haven’t spent a lot of time around or are uncomfortable with LGBTQ+ people, for example, then those candidates are much less likely to be moved forward in the hiring process. But just liking someone for their personality or shared background has no bearing on their ability to perform the job.

To combat affinity bias, “Create more objective checklists and measures that relate back to the job,” Jana suggests. When you focus on skills related to success on the job, you reduce the ability for recruiters and hiring managers to make decisions based on subjective perceptions of fit or feelings of affinity.

For more information on how to combat unconscious bias in your workplace, view our webinar below!

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Checking the Box Normalizes Bias

Making hiring decisions to fill a quota is extremely damaging to your larger culture, not to mention illegal. Using a protected class as a factor in making your final decision violates Title VII. The “check the box” attitude does nothing to actually move the needle against unconscious biases at work in your recruiting processes and can actually codify biases in your larger company culture.

“If you are privileging diversity to the point that you are considering candidates just because of their status as X, Y or Z minority and you’re not privileging their qualifications first,” Jana says, “that’s a problem.” This reduces candidates to the color of their skin or their sexual orientation, rather than looking at them as a whole person with talents and skills to offer. To make matters worse, this practice stacks the odds against diverse candidates. It leads to poor selection choices, which ultimately results in high turnover rates among diverse employees and can result in stereotypes within the organization of diverse employees being inconsistent or poor performers.

But when you eliminate the “check the box” mentality and put qualifications first, you can achieve a diverse workforce while prioritizing hiring for the skills you need. Make sure you diversify the talent pools you are drawing from to attract a range of diverse candidates as well. For example, most industries have affinity groups or organizations that represent diverse employee populations, such as individuals with disabilities, LGBTQ+ individuals, and groups based on race or cultural identity. These professional organizations can be mined for top candidates.

Poor Shortlisting Practices Amplify Bias

We often think of affinity bias as being concentrated in the interview process, but it plays a role even in the pre-screening and screening parts of the process. Shortlisting processes often amplify bias by eliminating diverse candidates based on criteria unrelated to job performance, such as the school they attended. “Shortlisting is often driven predominantly by bias,” Gorman points out. “Names, education, addresses, names of referees and style of their CV all play a big role in whether someone makes the shortlist or not.” Spotting a fellow alum of your university, for example, will often move that resume to the top of the pile, even though it has little or no bearing on actual performance potential.

And if you use AI to shortlist a large number of candidates, you could be amplifying that bias even more. AI’s ability to mitigate bias is limited by the people who program it. Be cautious when programming technology to look for certain types of candidates, Jana says.

There are free or inexpensive tools (e.g. Text.io) for checking bias in language that can help prevent recruiters or hiring managers from accidentally perpetuating bias when programming automatic selection tools. You can help counter these kinds of unconscious bias by weighing job-related skills and competencies over arbitrary factors like educational background or socioeconomic status.

And don't forget to view our webinar exploring the best ways to combat unconscious bias. It's free!

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