How to Avoid Unconscious Bias in Hiring

A diverse workforce gathering around a work station, talking and smiling.

Do you like to conduct interviews that feel like conversations? Do you tend to favor likable job applicants who seem like they would easily fit in with your current work teams? If so, then you may be guilty of injecting unconscious bias into your hiring process.

Unintentional bias in hiring can cause you to overlook talented applicants, thwart your diversity efforts, even undermine profits, and, as research shows, lead to decreased rates of employee satisfaction and retention.

So, how do you avoid something you can’t always see? There’s no easy fix. Unconscious bias requires an organizational commitment to replace outmoded hiring procedures with more equitable ones. The following seven steps can help you get started:

  1. Make unbiased hiring a priority
  2. Identify structural biases in your hiring process
  3. Eliminate illegal questions from your hiring process
  4. Revise job descriptions to focus on skills
  5. Use the same hiring process for every candidate
  6. Implement a standardized interview process
  7. Examine your hiring priorities and shift your criteria

1. Make Unbiased Hiring a Priority

Diverse organizations are more innovative and make more money than workplaces with less diverse payrolls and leadership teams. Examining and addressing unconscious bias in hiring can help you attract top talent, increase sales and revenue, and even make wiser investment decisions.

The data may be on your side, but examining assumptions and changing behavior is still a big ask. To succeed you’ll need to:

  • Get buy in from the top down. If senior management seems more interested in the appearance of addressing bias than actually increasing the number of underrepresented employees among your ranks and in leadership, then your diversity initiatives will fail. Focus on the business case for diversity to win over top-level management.
  • Train your hiring managers about bias and the benefits of diversity. First, make sure they know the data behind the policy goal. Committing to unbiased hiring is going to help them assemble more talented teams and reach their goals.
  • Set diversity goals and monitor your progress. Announce your goals publicly and be transparent about your successes and setbacks. Make sure your goals don’t stop with hiring. Implicit bias plays a part in promotion as well.

2. Identify Structural Biases in Your Hiring Process

Research shows that the hiring process as currently practiced by most employers is rife with unconscious bias against underrepresented groups. To mitigate racism, ageism, gender discrimination, and disability bias in hiring:

  • Admit that bias exists. Start from the premise that unintended bias exists in the workplace and in most hiring and promotion processes.
  • Separate the professional from the social. “Likability” has been found to be a highly weighted aspect of who gets hired across all sectors. But likeability is subjective. Charm may be an important quality in sales, for example, but it may not be relevant for many jobs.
  • Be cautious about referrals: A referral program can be an excellent way to find qualified candidates, but if you rely on them too much they can lead to a workforce where everyone has gone to the same schools, has similar hobbies, or similar cultural or economic backgrounds.
  • Bring more people into the hiring process, especially at the interview stage. Consider assembling a committee that includes managers, peers, and HR personnel so that a diversity of impressions can be considered at every stage of the filtering process.

3. Eliminate Illegal Questions from Your Hiring Process

Familiarize yourself with the legal guidelines governing hiring in your state and municipality, as well as federal guidelines. Knowing which attributes employers are legally prohibited from using as a basis for employment can help you review your processes to avoid unintended discrimination. Those categories are: race, color, religion, pregnancy, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, age, disability, and genetic information.

Use these criteria to review applications and interview questions. Understanding why a question is illegal and what kind of questions you can ask instead can help make the process more successful. Consider using software aimed at reducing bias to overhaul each stage of your current process and scrub biased language from your materials.

4. Revise Job Descriptions to Focus on Skills

Poor word choice can dissuade capable workers from applying. For example, “aggressive” might keep some women from applying while “digital native” can be seen as signaling that only younger applicants will be considered.

To address this issue, focus on skills rather than subjective personal descriptions. For example, rather than stating that you’re seeking a “digital native,” say that the applicant should have experience using various digital platforms.” Instead of saying that you are “seeking a native English speaker” say that you are seeking someone “with excellent written English speaking and writing skills.”

5. Use the Same Hiring Procedure for Every Candidate

Whatever procedure you establish, use it for every candidate. Consider implementing the following to further eliminate unconscious bias:

  • Establish a blind resume review process. Software can be used to strip out identifying information such as names, addresses, even graduation. At some companies it may make sense to filter out even the names of schools because they can be an indication of class background.
  • Assign hypothetical work tasks to applicants. Giving applicants hypothetical work assignments that closely parallel what they will be doing if hired is a better way to assess success than an interview, and far less susceptible to unconscious

6. Implement a Standardized Interview Process

  • Use an interview script and don’t deviate from it. Prepare your questions ahead of time using job-relevant language and ask the same questions in the same order to every candidate.
  • Cut the small talk. The best way to undermine this tendency is to conduct a streamlined interview that is highly focused on process questions, knowledge, and skills.
  • Don’t improvise: In social settings, conversations often center on family or hometown, but in a job interview such topics can reveal information employers can’t ask about, such as marital status or country of origin. The casual improvisation that is part of a typical conversation can easily lead to questions that can be biased, insulting, or even illegal.

7. Examine Your Hiring Priorities and Shift Your Criteria

  • Create a grading scale for each phase of the hiring process. Ask each hiring team member to grade candidates on each element in the hiring process—resume, work samples, interviews—to determine the finalist.
  • Don’t over-value interview performance. Interviews are too often the primary factor used to decide among top applicants even though they are very unreliable predictors of future job success. To overcome affinity bias, weigh work-related tasks higher than interviews.
  • Rethink “cultural fit.” It’s OK to consider an applicant’s cultural fit for your organization—as long as you are assessing the individual’s alignment with your company’s core values, not your own comfort level.

You’ve Learned How to Guard Against Unconscious Bias. Now Get More Cutting-Edge HR Tips

Now that you know how seven strategies that help you recognize your blind spots and eliminate bias in hiring from your recruitment processes, get more management tips from Monster. From the latest hiring trends to useful how-to guides, we can help you stay ahead of your competition.