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Find the Right Candidate: How to Avoid Unconscious Bias When Hiring

by Tim AustinAugust 11, 2020 8:00 AM

The hiring process is already difficult enough. The time, money, and energy it takes to conduct a thorough search for the right people is a serious commitment. Unfortunately, unconscious bias adds yet another hurdle for both your company and potential job candidates.

The goal of hiring is to find the right person for your company. Unconscious bias can cause your company to eliminate or overvalue prospects based on first impressions, preconceived notions, and other factors that aren’t true indicators of talent. Regardless of why and how they occur, it’s important to mitigate the impact of unconscious bias so that you can focus on what matters: hiring the best talent for your business.

A job interview conducted with practices that help eliminate unconscious bias from the hiring process.

What Can Unconscious Bias Affect in the Hiring Process?

First and foremost, unconscious bias can cost you the best candidate. In a pool of prospects, you may unwittingly eliminate a top candidate because of certain predispositions or unintended consequences from certain hiring practices. By updating your hiring process, you can increase your odds of identifying the perfect people for open positions. 

It’s important to note that bias extends beyond practices deemed discriminatory. In addition to explicit bias against race, gender, disability, and more, there are many other implicit biases. These unconscious biases may seem harmless at first, but can cause people to eliminate certain candidates or overvalue others. For example, certain hiring practices may not intend to exclude certain groups of people. However, these actions may cause companies to unknowingly make decisions based on secondary or tertiary factors instead of identifying who is right for your company. 

8 Ways to Help Prevent Unconscious Bias in the Hiring Process

It can be difficult to eliminate unconscious bias – it’s called unconscious bias, after all. However, there are some actions you can take throughout the hiring process to help remove these involuntary actions as you focus on finding the best possible candidate for your business.

Evaluate word choice in job descriptions

Words matter. Job descriptions play a critical role in attracting top talent. However, certain language can dissuade certain applicants from applying if you’re not careful. 

For example, using words like “guys” or “journeyman” in a job description can act as a red flags to female prospects. There are also less obvious gender-biased language that may deter qualified candidates. According to social role theory, certain word choices can reflect unconscious biases based on stereotypical roles and behaviors. As such, terms like “competitive” are typically geared to appeal to men, whereas words like “collaborative” attract more women than men.

The best way to avoid accidental bias in job descriptions is to carefully examine how they’re written. Once you spot a potential issue, experiment with wording to find an acceptable replacement that appeals to a wider audience. While certain terms are easier to identify than others, there are tools available to help in this endeavor. Both Gender Decoder and Textio can evaluate text to help spot questionable words to prepare your job descriptions for everyone. 

Find new talent sources

When it comes time to hire a new employee, many companies use the same methods that have worked in the past. This process makes sense to a degree – don’t fix what isn’t broken. However, this mindset also prevents you from potentially opening up your recruitment and sourcing efforts to a more diverse audience.

If you’ve turned to the same sources for years, odds are you’ll get more of the same pool of applicants in the future. By widening your search, you can open your company up to a more diverse group of talent than before. In addition, research shows that diversity is good for business. A McKinsey study analyzed 366 public companies and discovered that the organizations were “more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.”

This doesn’t mean you should abandon past sourcing methods – LinkedIn and referrals are tried and true for a reason. Instead, consider increasing the visibility of your openings by utilizing new resources, whether that means listing jobs on a career advancement platform like Jopwell, partnering with different colleges, and identifying other ways to diversify your applicant pool.

Consider “blind” resume reviews

It doesn’t take much to develop a preconceived notion about a candidate. In fact, unconscious bias can start as soon as you spot some basic information. 

Names, educational backgrounds, and locations can all trigger hidden biases that can both favor and disfavor candidates for a multitude of reasons. These justifications can be as silly as a candidate went to a rival college – you never know when the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry will rear its ugly head. Research also indicates that people with foreign-sounding names are 28 percent less likely to land an interview than those with more “Anglo”-sounding names. 

To avoid these issues, take a blind approach to reviewing resumes and block out any surface demographic characteristics that don’t directly impact the quality of a potential employee. Removing details like names can help you focus on what matters – is this person qualified for this job? This way you and anyone else reviewing resumes can concentrate on important details instead of adding false value to secondary criteria.

Standardize interviews

Not only can establishing a set list for every candidate speed up the hiring process, it can also help you avoid any accidental bias.

Unstructured interviews without any defined questions can put candidates on different playing fields. One interviewee may provide a great answer to one question, but you can’t compare those responses if you ask different questions or present them in a different manner. Standardized interviews allow you to minimize bias by focusing on important factors and being able to analyze each candidate as evenly as possible.

Avoid snap judgments

According to Monster, “job applicants have on average just 6 minutes and 25 seconds during the first meeting to impress interviewers.” Other studies suggest that some interviewers made hiring decisions after just 15 seconds. First impressions are important, but banking on initial observations is quick path to unconscious bias.

Simply put, it’s easy to judge people at first glance. The problem is that interviewers shouldn’t let superficial factors cloud the entire interview. It’s crucial to focus on factors that will directly impact job performance instead of personal details. For example, visible tattoos, hair color, and body weight can all play into a person’s first impression, but shouldn’t affect a candidate’s standing unless it’s a direct negative for the position. 

Snap judgments also go both ways. There can be situations where an interview may be unconsciously biased toward a candidate because of a first impression. Even something as simple as going to the same high school or being proud Corgi owners can add a sense of “likability” that may color your perception of a candidate’s answers. Instead be hyper-aware that the quality of the interview should focus on a candidate’s qualifications and fit for the company, not some secondary factor.

Don’t ask for salary history

While you may be curious to know what candidates earned in the past, that information may do more harm than good. First, certain states have made it illegal to ask applicants about their salary history. Even if you’re in a state that still allows the practice, that information can lead to incorrect misconceptions about certain candidates.

One reason for this is that it can be easy to try and relate people’s current and past salaries to their abilities and level of responsibility. However, that’s not necessarily the case. Every company approaches compensation differently, so it’s impossible to truly know if a lower salary is an indication of lesser talent or if employees are applying because it’s a better opportunity.

For example, the presence of unconscious gender bias plays a part in why women’s median annual earnings are $9,766 less than men's. In the end, it can be close to impossible to definitively use salary history to judge a candidate’s ability. Instead, it’s best to avoid the question and remove any possibility of unconscious bias based on the results.

Provide a salary range

While asking for salary history can prove problematic, providing a salary range is a good way to keep everyone on the same page. Salary ranges provide a few distinct benefits. Notably, they allow you to set a salary expectation upfront and streamline or even eliminate salary negotiations from the hiring process. An added benefit of this tactic is that it can help eliminate some unexpected biases as well.

As with asking for a salary history, the salary negotiation process can create some unconscious preconceptions that aren’t a true indicator of a candidate’s ability or fit. For example, some interviewers may find it odd if talented candidates ask for notably less than what you expect to pay them. A possible reaction would be to assume that these candidates aren’t as good as they seem in an interview and on paper. They may simply come from a business that paid them notably less – especially if their salaries are impacted by the aforementioned pay gap. By setting a salary range, you can avoid these questions altogether and build trust with candidates who appreciate transparency. 

Use skill assessments and work sample tests

If you’re trying to find the best possible person for a certain role, it may be best to test out their skills first. Resumes, interviews, and other sources can provide great insight. Unfortunately, it’s no secret that some candidates will exaggerate their abilities. However, you may be more likely to believe them based on a snap judgment or some other preconceived notion. Work sample tests and skill assessments can give you additional evidence of just how well a candidate can perform a job or if they have what it takes to succeed.

If you want an indicator of whether an employee has what it takes, skill assessments can give you extra insight into that person’s capabilities. From personality tests to situational judgment assessments, these examinations can help you confirm or deny any initial suspicions so that your company isn’t banking on gut decisions alone. The exact skill assessments you choose can vary greatly. To help, TalentLyft provides a comprehensive list of different skill assessment tools available.

Work sample tests offer extra insight in that you’ll get to see how a candidate may do with a real project or task. These tests are different than requesting past work samples – you have full control over what is assigned. In addition, the test you use for an opening should be the same for every candidate who makes it to that point in the process. This will allow you to compare each candidate based on the quality of their work instead of outside factors.

Identify the Perfect Candidates for Your Company

The hiring process is complicated. While it may seem simple – find and hire the best candidate – there are a multitude of factors that impact every step of the process. However, all the time and effort spent is worth it when you find that perfect person to fill a position.

Of course, there are always ways to help streamline and improve the hiring process. GMS can help you create a new, more efficient hiring process to not only help you find the right people for your business, but also help you use your time to focus on growing your business in other ways. Contact GMS today to talk about employee recruitment and onboarding management.

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