Are Unconscious Biases Impacting Your Hiring Decisions?

Four types of unconscious bias can undermine the recruiting process.

By Imo Udom

The goal of any talent acquisition function is to hire the people most qualified for a job, regardless of extraneous factors that have no bearing on their ability to perform. And while many companies believe their hiring practices are fair and free of bias, there is a chance that unintentional biases may emerge, hindering their ability to create a diverse, high-performing team.
Despite their best attempts to maintain inclusive hiring processes that look beyond factors such as race, ethnicity or gender to hire people based on skills, experience and potential, many organizations struggle to address hidden biases that can exist. And it's not just about those typical diversity categories; bias can extend to factors such as a candidate's educational background or their physical appearance.
impact of unconscious bias can have far-reaching effects on a company, preventing it from hiring the best people for the job and robbing it of the diversity of backgrounds and ideas that can lead to better problem solving and, ultimately, improved business results. According to Dr. Mahzarin Banaji, a Harvard University professor of social ethics, in cases of unconscious bias, "discrimination is veiled, not explicit, but rather more implicit, unconscious, because we ourselves are unaware of it."

But if we don't know that unconscious bias is happening, how can the issue be addressed?

Four Types of Unconscious Bias
To solve the problem of unintentional bias in the recruiting process, it's important to understand how such biases emerge, and how they impact talent acquisition. The following are four types of recruiting biases that exist and affect the decision-making process:
1. Confirmation Bias: Sometimes, interviewers may create a hypothesis in their minds about a candidate and then look for ways to prove it. It can be something as minor as forming an opinion about a candidate based on where they went to college, and then looking for other factors to validate why that candidate isn't the right fit. The result is that great candidates might not make it to the interview stage, or if they do, they will be perceived as less competent because of the interviewer's assumptions.
2. Affective Heuristic Bias: This type of bias occurs when an interviewer makes assumptions based on physical appearance -- such as a candidate's visible tattoos, hairstyle or body weight. For instance, research shows a high level of discrimination against overweight job candidates, who may be viewed as having
less leadership potential than others. Such bias can make the company vulnerable to legal action, while also preventing it from adding qualified people to the team based on factors that have nothing to do with their capacity to perform as required.
3. Expectation Anchor Bias: An interviewer may sometimes believe that a particular candidate is better qualified for a job than others, even though that might not be the case. For example, an interviewer may ask a potential salesperson how they performed on their sales quota over the last year. The candidate may reply that he achieved 120 percent of his target. That number would now serve as an anchor for the interviewer when evaluating all candidates. In such instances, the interviewer may neglect to investigate a candidate's background or context sufficiently, due to the high expectations he or she has for that individual, and the wrong candidate is subsequently hired.

4. Intuition Bias: Many interviewers like to make gut decisions or use their "sixth sense" for recruiting. The problem with this method is that the interviewer is essentially rejecting other candidates due to limited information -- those gut feelings are based on the appearance or other external factors of the person taking the interview. Intuition isn't necessarily bad, the issue lies with using intuition alone to make a decision without considering other factors.

How to Eliminate Bias

By now it should be clear that unintentional actions or assumptions can be detrimental to the hiring process. So, what can be done to not only recognize unconscious bias, but also work to eliminate it?

It's human nature for people to show a preference for individuals who share similar backgrounds and experience -- and to reject those who may be unfamiliar. There are a number of things organizations can do to give recruiters and hiring managers a greater understanding of the unconscious biases they may have. For example, The Implicit Association Test -- created by researchers at Harvard, the University of Washington and the University of Virginia -- has been taken by more than 2 million people and has revealed that even the most consciously tolerant of us may hold prejudices. Google has created an hour-long unconscious bias training course for all of its employees that starts with an explanation of why all of us have biases and how becoming aware of them can lead to behavior change -- which can help the company become more collaborative, inclusive and competitive (Google provides additional information about its "Unbiasing" campaign here).  Diversity training will also help them become more familiar with different people, experiences and cultures, so they'll become more accustomed to diversity.

Another way to remove unconscious bias is to ensure all candidates are interviewed, evaluated and considered equally, enabling recruiters and hiring managers to look beyond the resume to better assess candidates' strengths and soft skills. Video interviewing can help in this regard. By sharing pre-recorded interview questions with candidates, and asking them to respond via video as well, the recruiting team can learn more about candidates and what they can bring to the organization before inviting them to an in-person interview.

Video interviewing also allows for greater consistency and transparency; as each candidate is asked the same questions, interviewers can ensure their decisions are based on hard evidence rather than unconscious biases. And, because the candidates' responses can be reviewed over again and shared with other stakeholders on the hiring team, it becomes easier to evaluate candidates and benefit from others’ perspectives on who should be advanced. Moreover, video interviewing holds hiring managers and recruiters accountable for their discriminatory behavior, while working to eliminate it. When each candidate's video responses are stored in a central system, multiple people on the hiring team can access them, enabling a greater level of transparency. For instance, if a hiring manager selects three candidates out of 10 to move forward, but the recruiter noticed two other candidates that appeared to be a better fit based on their responses, the recruiter can ask the hiring manager for a more-detailed explanation about his or her selections. This honest conversation can lead to the uncovering of unconscious bias on the hiring manager's part.

Unconscious bias has long been an epidemic in the recruiting field -- and the result is that companies fail to move the best candidates forward. Solving this problem starts with acknowledging that these biases, though unintentional and often unnoticed, definitely exist. Knowing what leads to such biases, and adopting the technology to overcome them and assess candidates on their merits and strengths, will enable recruiters and hiring managers to look past their gut feelings and hire the people most qualified for the job.

Imo Udom is the co-founder and CEO of WePow. Prior to WePow, Udom held a number of posts at Lockheed Martin, including deputy lead systems engineer and proposal manager, where he managed a diverse team and evaluated project success. Udom received his bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and his master's degree in systems engineering from the University of Pennsylvania.

Mar 27, 2017
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