January 25, 2023

7 Tips to Avoid Unconscious Hiring Bias

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Tags: HR Recruiting

Key Takeaways

  • Hiring bias holds a company back from finding, attracting, hiring, and retaining talent of various backgrounds and skill sets.
  • HR professionals can and should empower employees to confront and reduce bias in the hiring process through education and software tools.

When it comes to hiring top talent, bias, intentional or not, plays a role. Even the most well-intentioned hiring teams are susceptible to unconscious bias, which prevents otherwise sound recruitment strategies from delivering top talent.

Implicit bias might be negatively influencing recruiting strategy. Recruiters and hiring teams might hire people similar to them which leads to a homogenous team where everyone thinks alike and maybe even looks alike. A homogenous workforce hampers business innovation and adaptability because the company won’t be able to identify with and serve the needs of a broad customer base.  

Check out our Recruiting Software Guide to explore software features that help to further reduce hiring bias.

7 ways to avoid unconscious bias when hiring

Left unchecked, bias in hiring leads to a homogenous workforce starved of the very skills and ideas that help a company grow to be more successful. But there’s plenty that a company’s recruiters and hiring managers can do.

1. Educate employees about unconscious bias

It’s hard to address a problem that employees might be unaware of in the first place. The Harvard Business School’s Project Implicit is an eye-opening exercise that helps people recognize and measure their biases. This first step gets everyone on the same page with an understanding of what unconscious bias is. 

Approaching the topic with humility and empathy can help get the message across that everyone carries prejudices and they’re normal to have. HR professionals, chief diversity officers, and consultants can then present unconscious bias training as an opportunity to observe and shape one’s own thought patterns.

Training encourages employees to further explore and challenge their assumptions before they start evaluating candidates and making hiring decisions. Everyone benefits from examining their own implicit bias, especially those involved in hiring. 

Organizations can create their own internal training program, hire a consultant, or use online resources like Google’s unconscious bias training.

2. Diversify hiring teams

Recruiting and hiring is often a team effort, especially for larger organizations. Putting together a panel of contact people at various stages of the applicant’s journey invites different perspectives of the candidate’s ability to succeed in the role. 

Those involved in the hiring process should represent an array of skills, experiences, backgrounds, and seniority levels because the team can evaluate each candidate more holistically. A diverse hiring team sheds insight into how a candidate themselves interacts with different people they meet in the organization.

In addition, each member’s perspective fills what another’s perspective is lacking. For instance, one member of the team might dismiss a candidate because their work experience appears to be unrelated to the role in question. Yet, another team member might then point to the applicant’s transferable skills. 

3. Craft neutral job posts

Being mindful of word choice will help attract more diverse candidates from the get-go. Hiring managers should examine a job description for words that inadvertently bring to mind candidates of a particular gender, age, or ability. Tools like Textio scan job descriptions, flag skewed terms, and suggest more objective phrasing to replace them. 

Gender

Those in charge of drafting job posts can pull a number of small but powerful levers to arrive at more gender parity in the applicant pool. Making small tweaks to the job title, pronouns, character trait wording, and the requirements list can make a difference. 

Before getting to the description itself, gendered job titles can attract or deter certain candidates from applying. Those drafting the job description should carefully examine the job title first to swap out problematic titles like “salesman” for something more gender-neutral, like “salesperson.” In the same vein, replacing gendered pronouns like “she” and “he” with the more neutral “they” will help attract applicants of various genders. It also makes for easier reading, as long as it doesn’t muddle the meaning.

Also, certain words and phrases are culturally coded as feminine — like “collaborative” and “empathetic” — or masculine — like “competitive” or “determined.” As a result, such words actually discourage applicants of some genders or draw a disproportionate number of resumes from candidates of other genders. A more moderate approach that mixes coded words helps strike a gender-neutral balance.

Furthermore, a LinkedIn report reveals that job postings with long lists of requirements will deter women from applying. This is because women tend to apply only to jobs where they meet 100% of the requirements. Men, on the other hand, tend to apply when they meet about 60% of the requirements. Women applicants hold themselves to a higher standard of perfection when browsing job postings.

Also read: Best Practices for Writing the Perfect Job Descriptions

Age 

Characteristics like “dynamic” and “energetic” are not only vaguely related to the role itself, but they also signal to applicants that the company is looking for someone of a particular age group and ability. Choose descriptive traits that more directly speak to the job duties and company values. 

For example, instead of words like “dynamic” or “energetic,” which connote movement and speed, try the adjective “influential” or a verb like “contribute” or “impact.” Pairing these adjectives with nouns makes it even more concrete for applicants reading the job post. 

Ability

Avoid language that can deter individuals with disabilities from applying, especially if such wording is unrelated to the job and if physical aspects of the job can be reasonably accommodated. In fact, employers can proactively mention accommodations in the job description. 

The US Department of Labor Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) and the Harvard Computer Society Tech for Social Good partnered to create a natural language processing tool that flags job descriptions for ableist language.  

For instance, instead of referring to “standing” for long periods of time, the job description could instead read as “remain in a stationary position.” Or, instead of noting that the candidate would need to “walk from station to station,” expressing it instead as “move from station to station” still gets the idea across without implying how it needs to get done. Another example to consider is whether a data entry role actually requires “typing” data into a spreadsheet, as typing implies hands and fingers. One could also simply “input,” “enter,” or “record” data instead. The Ableist Language Lexicon lists several such terms and alternatives to consider. 

Those that write job descriptions should acknowledge that there are various creative ways to get the work done beyond the typical, embodied ways we describe duties.

Neurodiversity

Hiring managers can revise job descriptions to attract neurotypical and neurodivergent candidates alike. Neurodiversity acknowledges that individuals think, learn, behave, and interact with the world around them in different ways. Neurodivergent individuals contribute out-of-the-box approaches that boost innovation.

To speak to candidates of varying cognitive abilities, use clear, concise language in job postings and avoid sarcasm, metaphors, and idioms. To this end, try to be as specific as possible when putting down “collaborative” or “works well with others” as desired traits. Clearer descriptions of the degree and nature of on-the-job interaction might help ease the social pressure the posting might otherwise imply.

With regards to qualifications, it’s also helpful to clearly segment them into required, preferred, and bonus criteria, so that applicants don’t feel pressured to meet all of them.

Employers can partner with an organization called Neurodiversity in the Workplace to find more tips and engage neurodivergent job seekers.

4. Review resumes blindly

Research shows that even someone’s name or address on a resume raises implicit associations about the job applicant and thus opens the door for bias. 

To review resumes more objectively, a company can invest in resume blinding software or recruiting platforms that conceal names and demographic info during resume reviews to help avoid unconscious bias.

If your current recruiting software or ATS doesn’t assist with reducing hiring bias, it may be time for an upgrade. Fetcher, Greenhouse, Paylocity, Jobvite, Workable, and Workday all have built-in features to support a more equitable hiring process.

Employers should be aware, however, that bias doesn’t end with software implementation. New York City’s AI Bias Law is effective as of January 2023, and other jurisdictions may follow suit. The law requires NYC-based companies to routinely audit their AI-powered hiring tools to ensure compliance with anti-discrimination laws. So, it’s not enough to implement AI in the recruitment and hiring process; hiring teams and HR have to know how it works, how it’s used, and be able to explain it to external auditors.

Also read at Datamation: Addressing Bias in Artificial Intelligence 

5. Prioritize performance over resumes

Employee referrals, potentially embellished resumes, and name-dropping Ivy League schools increase the chance of recruitment bias and prevent quality talent from rising to the top of the resume stack. Not to mention, they’re not indicators of potential job performance. Discovering diverse talent may therefore require sidelining the resume for a more performance-based approach that includes a small project or test. 

GapJumpers is a blind hiring solution that lets employers screen applicants based on “performance over privilege and pedigree.” Applicants complete a challenge that mimics what they’d do on the job, and the employer gets blind results that conceal that applicant’s age, gender, race, ethnicity, and educational background. 

6. Standardize interview questions

Regardless of whether an applicant applied through a job posting site or was personally referred by the CEO, recruiters should ask them all the same questions. Conducting structured interviews gives each candidate the same opportunity to show their qualifications.

Setting up interview and assessment questions beforehand ensures fairness and apples-to-apples comparisons between candidates. Greenhouse lets HR recruiting teams create “scorecards” prior to the interview process. The team decides on threshold criteria that a candidate has to meet in order to make it to the next phase of the hiring process. A criterion for a managerial role, for instance, might include “demonstrated experience navigating conflict in a team.”

Interview questions should focus solely on the candidate’s work experience and skillset, not on any information that introduces bias, such as questions about family, religion, or any other protected trait. 

After the interview, hiring managers should instruct or remind the team to refrain from discussing candidates with one another before a decision is made. Recruiting software, such as Greenhouse and Breezy HR, provides a private space for note-taking when interviewing a candidate.

7. Determine values fit instead of cultural fit

The criterion of cultural fit as a factor in hiring is highly subjective and therefore introduces bias into the hiring decision. 

Assessing for cultural fit runs the risk of affinity bias which describes the tendency to like people who we perceive to be similar to us. So, while workplace culture is important for some semblance of cohesion, deciding on a candidate based on cultural fit may reproduce the same patterns that lead to hiring employees with similar backgrounds. This only deprives the organization of the diverse skills and experiences needed to thrive.

In the job posting, highlight company values and the characteristics that support them in order to speak to candidates who align with those values. In the interview stage, to get a sense of the candidate’s workplace values, try posing “tell me about a time when” questions or ask the candidate to describe their ideal work environment. Interviewers can take note of how the candidate describes themselves, their behavior, and their co-workers when answering these questions.

Learn how here: How to Select a Diverse Interview Panel and Improve Your Recruitment Strategy

What is unconscious bias in hiring?

Unconscious bias describes the way the human brain makes flash judgments that inform actions and decision-making before one can even stop to think about it. 

In candidate evaluation and hiring decisions, hiring team members might make assumptions about a candidate’s ability to perform or the kind of support they may or may not need as an employee. For example, a hiring manager viewing a female candidate’s resume for an engineering role might unwittingly question her qualification for the role.

What causes unconscious bias in the hiring process?

A range of factors stemming from early childhood influence the way an individual judges someone else. Personal background, socialization, media exposure, and media consumption are but a few key factors that hold sway over how we perceive others.

Less bias means better hiring

Back to top

Everyone carries implicit biases that affect their judgment. However, in the context of talent acquisition, failing to recognize and address them means a company misses out on talent that enhances creativity, innovation, and adaptability.  

Mitigating bias in the hiring process creates opportunities to engage a diverse range of talent that ultimately benefits the company in terms of employee morale and satisfaction, innovation, and growth. A deliberate, varied combination of mindfulness techniques, training, and software tools can help recruiting teams reduce bias in their hiring process.

HR and recruiting won’t know if any of the above tactics works unless recruiting metrics are in place to track progress on recruiting goals, such as growth vs. attrition rates, application completion rates, and other indicators.

Check out our Recruiting Software Guide to explore features that help to further reduce hiring bias.

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