Unconscious bias is a major issue within organisations as it distorts decision making processes and prevents optimum outcomes from being achieved. This article looks at unconscious bias within the context of the recruitment process.

All of us carry inherent biases from our life experiences that we often fail to adequately consider. Our brains take shortcuts based on these experiences to facilitate easier decision making. But these shortcuts can occasionally trip us up. Conducting research into unconscious bias in 2016, assistant professors at the University of Colorado, David Hekman and Stefanie Johnson, posited two statements to highlight the issue:

  1. The rock star was unhappy with the amount of alcohol at the party.
  2. The nun was unhappy with the amount of alcohol at the party.

Our pre-existing stereotypes about rock stars and nuns mean that we interpret the two statements very differently. The common perception is that the rock star is disappointed that there is not enough alcohol at the party while the nun believes that there is an excessive amount of alcohol available.

Unconscious bias can lead to hiring decisions that maintain the status quo and retard the advancement of an organisation or industry by limiting the pool of candidates rather than helping increase diversity and, ultimately, achieving greater success.

For example, within the Australian funds management industry, 76 percent of investment managers are male. This gender imbalance is not only unfair to women, but there are associated problems for the industry. Research from Mercer revealed that female investment managers were 30 percent less likely to be promoted and 50 percent more likely to leave the industry than their male colleagues because of the lack of a level playing field.

Other industries have sought to remedy similar problems. Realising that they were mainly hiring men, many symphony orchestras around the world began using blind auditions in the 1970s and ’80s, which is still the norm for preliminary rounds of auditions today. According to research from the Harvard Kennedy School, this practice increased the percentage of female musicians in the five-highest ranked orchestras in the US from six percent in 1970 to 21 percent in 1993.

What are the common types of unconscious bias?

Unconscious biases can manifest in different ways but there are four common types: affinity bias, confirmation bias, labelling bias and selective attention bias.


Affinity bias

Affinity bias is a bias towards people who are similar to us in terms of gender, race, level of education and socio-economic background.

Businesses should aim to recruit like-minded people to some degree in order to ensure a good cultural fit, however, affinity bias can seriously hinder diversity and therefore creativity and approaches to tasks.

Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias refers to the tendency to subscribe to views and information that support our preconceived positions.

For example, if a candidate is late for an interview, an interviewer might assume that they lack organisational skills so begin to look for traits in them that further support that view.

Labelling bias

Labelling bias is when we develop a view based on how people appear externally; by their dress or hairstyle for example.

A dislike for a particular aspect of a person’s appearance can result in some interviewers suddenly disliking everything the candidate has to say.

Selective attention bias

Selective attention bias, also called the halo effect, is the opposite of labelling bias. It occurs when we pay particular attention to opinions and ideas from people that we are attracted to.

This can be problematic during the recruitment process as the halo effect often quickly wears off, and you’re stuck with an employee who is not the right fit for the job.


How to manage unconscious bias

There are a number of individual and team strategies that can help HR professionals be aware of and manage unconscious bias during the recruitment process.

  • Accept that you have unconscious biases – Biases are unavoidable; we all have them. That’s why this section is called ‘how to manage unconscious bias’ and not ‘how to prevent unconscious bias’. It is about how you are able to identify and control your biases that will make you a better HR professional, not trying to eliminate them entirely. A technique to identify your biases is to consider the types of people that you typically trust, their character traits, and question why this is the case. Then think about how this affects your hiring decisions.
  • Build diversity into the recruitment team – A diverse recruitment team is going to bring a range of ideas and attitudes to the hiring process and mitigate the risk of team bias becoming a problem.
  • Develop a team response to unconscious bias - Work as a team to identify and discuss biases and have an open discussion about them. Once the issues are out in the open, the team can develop a collective response and work to eliminate them such as removing any biases from policies and procedures. This can include using checklists and removing names and personal details when vetting CVs. Practicing an attitude of openness to unconscious bias also reduces any stigmas that people might associate with their biases.
  • Put your team through unconscious bias training – Training programs for unconscious bias expose people to their biases and then provide tools for recognising and controlling them. For unconscious bias training to be successful, your team members need to be open to acknowledging their biases and working to manage them.
  • Keep an open mind – Don’t rush to pass judgement on candidates. Take the time to really understand them and fully assess their suitability for the role. Remember that just because someone’s values differ to yours, they are not necessarily wrong or invalid.
  • Treat each candidate as an individual – Try to consider each candidate’s appropriateness for a position based on their own merits rather than comparing them to others.