Unconscious bias in hiring: how to tackle barriers to diversity

Companies with a diverse workforce are more productive, creative and profitable. It pays to identify and remove any unconscious bias from your hiring process — you can start by following our tips for building a more inclusive recruitment process – you’ll be amazed at what a more diverse workforce can do for your business!

Talent & Hiring

⋅ min read

This June, we’re celebrating and raising awareness of all-things Pride Month. One of the major obstacles LGBTQ+ people face is achieving representation in the workplace. For example, in 2021 lesbian, gay and bisexual people made up just 3.9% of the workforce. 

As an employer, promoting a diverse and inclusive workplace should be a priority, and that starts with perfecting your hiring process. We’re all subject to unconscious bias (there are 10 different biases, bear in mind!), so we’re here to explain how you can train your team to identify and eliminate these.

What is unconscious bias?

Let’s be clear on one thing: everyone suffers from an unconscious bias at some point. These are associations we hold about others, whether we know it or not. Our brains automatically make quick judgments and assessments within split seconds of meeting someone new. These snap judgments are influenced by a whole host of factors, from our background and own personal experiences to societal stereotypes and the culture we live in. 

With so many different types of unconscious bias, these can relate to gender, ethnicity and sexuality, as well as other characteristics like height and weight. For example, beauty bias is when you prefer someone you perceive to be attractive and you make assumptions based purely on their appearance.

How does this manifest itself in hiring processes?

The problem with unconscious bias is that it can lead us to judge someone – or even make a decision as to whether they’re the right candidate for the role – before we’ve got to know them properly. It’s no secret that ageism and sexism play a big (and unwanted) role in hiring, which could explain why there are more male CEOs than female, or why 60% of older employees have experienced age-based discrimination at work. 

The consequences of unconscious bias are wide-ranging. And one of the biggest downfalls of a biassed hiring process is that your workforce is unlikely to be as diverse as it could be. 

Let’s say the hiring manager has a very traditional British name, and the candidate they’re interviewing has a stereotypical Latino name. This situation opens itself up to name bias, which is when an individual is negatively discriminated against because of their name. Because of this, many companies choose to omit names and other personal information from applications to create a fairer sorting process.

Or maybe you have a team of white women on the hiring board. They could fall victim to affinity bias, where we tend to prefer people who share similar qualities to us. In this case, you’re in danger of hiring only candidates who possess the same attributes as this group of women, which doesn’t make for a very diverse workplace. You can prevent this by making sure your recruitment process is fully representative of different genders, ages, ethnicities and backgrounds.

4 ways to to identify and mitigate unconscious bias

It’s not just the actual interview you need to screen for unconscious bias, it’s the whole process. That’s everything from the job description you advertise online to the way you sort through resumes.

Before you do anything, check your Glassdoor reviews

When it comes to candidates looking for a new job, checking Glassdoor reviews is a bit like window shopping. It gives them a glimpse into the world of your workplace, helping them decide whether or not it’s the kind of environment they’d like to work in. Take a look at what current and past employees are saying about you. If there’s anything negative, make an effort to address these concerns before you start hiring. It’s worth reaching out to anyone who’s left a less than glowing review to see if they have any suggestions for improvement – good ideas can come from anywhere.

Write inclusive job descriptions

The time has come to write a job description to attract the best quality candidates. That starts with avoiding any kind of gender bias. Research shows that women tend not to apply for a role unless they meet 100% of the criteria, so it might be wise to eliminate any requirements that aren’t essential. Or, you could add a sentence at the end urging candidates to apply even if they don’t have all the relevant experience. 

Similarly, you can encourage older candidates to apply for your job by not using “young” language that’s all too often used in recruiting these days – think “work hard, play hard” and “digitally native”.

To steer clear of racial bias, don’t ask that applicants be “native English speakers” as this could deter anyone not born in the UK from applying. Instead, ask that candidates be fluent in English, as this will widen your talent pool when it comes to reviewing CVs.

It’s always a good idea to include your company’s DEI policy on job descriptions, to give potential applicants a flavour of how seriously you take diversity.

Review your screening process

Once you’ve got a (metaphorical) pile of CVs ready to review, you need to be mindful of your screening process. If a person lists a “hobbies” or “pastimes” section on their application, for example, you can avoid the affinity bias by considering candidates with interests that differ to yours. If someone enjoys gaming whereas you prefer outdoorsy activities, don’t automatically assume that they won’t be a good fit for your team or you won’t get on well. Similarly, if someone includes their home address, don’t take this into consideration. Addresses give away socio-economic information and can lead us to make assumptions, and remember that it’s not up to you to decide if someone lives too far from the office to be able to commute every day.

If you’re using screening software, you could ask to hide candidates’ names and genders from their profiles to put everyone on a level playing field. Some people include their photo on their CV, so you might choose to hide this too.

You might want to put all recruiters through unconscious bias training before they’re allowed to screen applications. This helps people to identify their own biases and gives them the tools to prevent them from acting on them. Kallidus offers both manager and staff training, and Equality & Diversity UK offers guidance over Zoom or in-house.

Make sure your interviews are fair and inclusive

Of course, making sure candidates are interviewed by a range of people is the first step. For instance, you don’t want a hiring board made up exclusively of straight, white men. Equally, it’s not ideal to have a panel of only lesbian women. Variety is key for different perspectives.

It’s a good idea to use a standardised set of questions in your interview process, so that each candidate has the same chance to talk about their experience and interest in the role. It’s near impossible to compare apples with apples if you’re asking different – potentially leading – questions. Standardising your questions helps to reduce bias by encouraging recruiters to focus only on factors that are relevant to job performance.

It goes without saying, but stay away from social media before you interview someone. A person’s social media profile is often a window into their personal life, which is totally separate from their professional life. Let’s say their religion means they don’t drink – if you see this before the interview, this might cloud your judgement on whether they’d be a good fit for your team socials. (Better still, make sure your company outings involve activities other than drinking and partying so that everyone can enjoy themselves.)

How to measure progress

By making a series of small changes to your recruiting process, you should start to see the results you’re looking for. But it’s important to measure progress to make sure the changes you’ve implemented aren’t just superficial. Check if your headcount is diverse – if you employ a range of ages, genders, ethnicities and sexualities, consider it a success! Your senior leaders should be representative of these minorities, too.

Just remember to continue measuring progress so that your hiring process doesn’t fall back into its old ways. You could send out a monthly company-wide survey asking people if they’re happy with the diversity and inclusion at work. If you’re worried about excluding people from any questions, include an “other” option so they can be more specific about their demographic. Once you have a concrete set of results, you’ll know where you need to focus your hiring efforts. The fact that 26% of employees claim they don’t feel like they belong at their company suggests there’s still work to be done, so don’t neglect putting in the extra effort.

It’s clear that there’s no longer a need to promote a business case for diversity: companies who employ a diverse workforce are more productive, creative and profitable. Not to mention it’s a key driver for many job seekers. So it could quite literally pay to identify and remove any unconscious bias from your hiring process. Start by following our tips for building a more inclusive recruitment process – you’ll be amazed at what a more diverse workforce can do for your business.

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