To remove bias from a hiring process, you first have to acknowledge that it exists! As humans we’re naturally drawn to others when we feel we have something in common or they match our own expectations, which is useful for making friends and finding romantic partners, but not so helpful when hiring. The good news is that our in-built bias isn’t necessarily a problem if we’re aware of it and take active steps to ensure it doesn’t cloud our judgement when hiring.
There’s lots of different ways that bias can creep into a recruitment process and the first big step is being conscious of what they could be. The most common forms of bias when it comes to hiring are:
Confirmation Bias – this can be a very common trap to fall into, it’s essentially looking for information to confirm what you already think about an applicant. An example of this is assuming that because a candidate is a single parent, they will require lots of time off work and will probably want less hours or lots of flexibility. Straight away you’re making assumptions about the applicant’s personal circumstances and motivations which can be unfairly reinforced if for example, you’re not able to contact the applicant right away or you hear a child in the background when speaking on the phone. What often happens is that even if the applicant says all the right things i.e. “I have a great support network” or “I can fully commit to the hours required”, the hiring manager still can’t get past their own pre-conceived notions and will purposely look for things that confirm their original assumption.
Cultural Bias – a lot has been said, and rightfully so, about avoiding cultural bias. Just because an applicant comes from another country, religion, background or ethnicity doesn’t mean they’re any less (or more) suited for a role. Whether we want to admit it or not, we all hold certain stereotypes in our heads and often let that dictate how we interact or perceive others. Unsurprisingly, minority groups are usually the worst affected by this.
Affinity Bias – also referred to as projection or similarity bias, you see similarities or shared values in an applicant, so you assume they’ll be just like you and therefore a great fit for the organisation! It’s natural to be drawn to someone that you can relate to because there’s comfort in familiarity, but that doesn’t always make for good hiring decisions. If you have a team full of very similar people, the office banter might be great but the ability to explore new ideas and alternative ways of looking at things can be lost. It’s harder to recognise issues or potential solutions if you’re all coming at a problem from the same place!
Beauty Bias – as the name suggests, this one is playing on our biological preference for “attractive” people! You’ve heard the old saying “don’t judge a book by its cover”, and the same goes for judging a candidate by their physical appearance. Try not to be dazzled by good looks and winning smiles (or lack thereof), and instead focus on what they can do, their track record and capacity to learn – which let’s be honest, are all far more important in the workplace than looking like a supermodel! What’s important is basing your decisions on how well they can do the job, not how they look.
Hindsight Bias – had a bad experience with a previous employee so now you steer clear of anyone that reminds you of that person? We all know that hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it’s not always a good way to judge someone you don’t yet know! While it’s good to trust your gut, be wary of lumping people together just because they happen to have something in common.
This is by no means an extensive list of the types of bias that can impact a hiring process, but once you start recognising these and questioning your own thought process, chances are you’ll pick up on other potential bias too.
How do I avoid bias when making hiring decisions?
When you’re hiring, you always need to question your assumptions – do you already have a picture in your mind of what the ideal candidate looks like? If so, ask yourself why? We often limit the potential applicant pool not based on who can actually do the job, but who we think should be in the job based off our own pre-conceived notions.
Language is important:
Think about the language you’re using in your job ad and position description. While English doesn’t typically have masculine or feminine associated words like other languages can, over time certain phrases or word choices have built up associations with a particular gender. If these are used in a hiring process like a job ad for example, it can signal to job-seekers that you’re looking for a particular gender type, meaning half the jobseekers will rule themselves out automatically.
One place that gendered language commonly pops up in hiring is to do with job titles – take waiter and waitress for example. There’s no reason to have two different words for what is exactly the same job, but traditionally some job titles have had that distinction. Thankfully that kind of gendered language is falling out of favour, and you’re more likely to see waitstaff being called for. However the title of Chairman is still very much in use. While saying Chairperson may feel a little clunky to our ears, the simple shortened Chair is a good alternative.
Another way that bias can infiltrate a hiring process is by using jargon that may be common in your workplace, but not easily understood to anyone outside. While there are some highly specialised types of roles that will use jargon for example in IT or medicine, where it’s fair to expect that suitable applicants will know and understand what you mean, this doesn’t have to be the case all the time. In fact, using jargon in job ads tends to put people off because their own bias will tell them they’re not suitable because they’re not familiar with that term.
Be realistic about the necessary skills required:
Did you know that studies have shown women are less likely to apply for a job unless they tick nearly all the boxes listed in the “necessary skills” part of a job ad? While it would be great to hire someone that does have all the experience you’re looking for, sometimes that’s simply not possible. Consider either how you word it (so that it doesn’t come across as sounding like they are all must-haves) or trim the list to ensure only the absolutely essential criteria are included.
Try Blind Hiring:
Blind hiring means removing any details from an applicant’s CV that might allow you to build a picture of the candidate in your head – such as name, gender, ethnicity, the school they went to, age, etc. When you’re left with only the pure skills and experience, your judgement won’t be clouded by things that’re typically outside of the candidate’s control.
Be consistent with your process:
Put every shortlisted candidate through the same questions, the same tests – whatever it may be, make sure everyone goes through the same process, including internal applicants. That way you’re judging like for like rather than giving some candidates an unfair advantage.
While bias is a natural part of being human, being aware of it and taking steps to not let it get in the way of decision making can result in better hiring decisions. If you need help or advice with a recruitment process, don’t hesitate to get in touch with the team!
Kirsty and Nikki