Say bye to unconscious bias – here’s how to hire a diverse workforce

unconscious bias

Let’s get one thing straight: we’re all biassed to some degree.

Unfortunately, it’s an inevitable part of human nature. 

But don’t beat yourself up about it just yet. The truth is that it’s nearly impossible to avoid some form of unconscious bias. Especially, when you consider the mind’s been moulded by a mixture of our upbringings, experiences and everyday environments.

Not to mention the mass media we consume; many of us spend an average of 2 hours 24 minutes a day consuming social content that fits our own interests and beliefs. With that in mind, it’s easy to see how we could get stuck in a loop. 

But are these types of bias so bad? The short answer is: yes and no. 

“Some of these biases can be relatively harmless, such as forming preconceived ideas as to what foods you may or may not like before trying them. Others, though, are more harmful and consequential – including who we think we will and won’t enjoy working with,” says the team at HR Grapevine.

The thing is: although this type of bias is working on a subconscious level, its consequences are always felt in the front mind of those affected by it.

Alarmingly, research from the Impact Group found that workers who reported experiencing workplace bias were 33% more likely to feel alienated and 34% more likely to withhold ideas. Consequently, up to 80% would not refer people to their employer.

And that’s if these individuals make it through the hiring process at all.

Countless research has revealed the negative part unconscious bias can play in the recruitment process – even before the interview stage. For example, one paper showed that even when resumes were identical, those with white-sounding names, e.g. John Smith, were 50% more likely to get a job interview than ethnic-sounding names like Jamal, Venkat or Xuan. 

But when these biases are so unconscious or hidden, how can you confront them head-on?

Educate yourself (and then empathise)

Experts believe that there could be as many as 175 types of cognitive bias that affect everyday decision-making. 

However, it’s commonly believed that there are eleven that often play a negative role in the recruitment process. These are:-

1. Affinity Bias

Essentially, this is the tendency we have to gravitate towards people who share similar attributes to ourselves, e.g. gender, race or social background.

What can you do about it?

Ensure you have a diverse hiring committee that includes men, women and underrepresented racial/ethnic groups. 

2. Confirmation Bias

This involves favouring information that confirms your previously existing beliefs, biases or assumptions. For example, hiring managers may recall a candidate’s extroverted demeanour over their other skills when deciding they’re already “perfect” for a sales role. 

What can you do about it?

During the interview, make sure you ask questions that gauge the specific skill level for certain areas of the role.

3. Conformity Bias

Similar to groupthink, this usually occurs when your views are swayed by the opinions of others.

What can you do about it?

Ensure interviews are structured and wait until the entire process is over to share your thoughts and opinions with coworkers. Simulating on-the-job scenarios is a good way to gauge a candidate’s skill level, whilst leaving this bias at the door.

4. Ageism

This is discriminating against someone based on their age. Alarmingly, 66% of older candidates have experienced this at one point or another and it affects more women than men.

What can you do about it?

Commit to a blind hiring process and strip away identifiable characteristics from CVs that are not related to a candidate’s work experience. 

5. Beauty Bias

Various research studies throughout the years have revealed the impact beauty bias has in the workplace. For example, one study found that men who were deemed “less attractive” earn 9% less than the male average per hour, whilst women deemed “less attractive” earn 4% less than average. 

What can you do about it?

Use online application forms as opposed to CVs with photos. Then be mindful to focus on a candidate’s skills in the interview; not their looks.

6. Attribution Bias 

This happens when we make assumptions about people based on their previous actions. For example, thinking someone can’t settle in a role because they’ve changed jobs frequently. 

What can you do about it?

Set tasks or focus on current work examples to avoid reading between the lines of past experience and accomplishments. 

7. Gender Bias

Unfortunately, this is still a huge issue in the workplace. In fact, research suggests up to four in 10 female employees have experienced gender discrimination at work. 

What can you do about it?

Women are 79 times more likely to be hired when at least two female applicants are on the shortlist. So make sure your job ads are written in an inclusive manner to attract a mix of candidates and ensure the hiring panel that’s taking those prospects to the next stage is diverse.

8. The Contrast Effect

This occurs when hirers compare candidates to each other, instead of assessing them on their own merits. 

What can you do about it?

Try to leave a little more room between interviews so you can focus on each candidate individually. And if you find yourself making comparisons, write down exactly why you’re leaning towards one over the other. 

9. The Halo/Horns Effect

First impressions count and can often lead to this unconscious bias. The Halo/Horns Effect is a tendency to put someone on a pedestal after learning something impressive about them or, alternatively, writing them off after hearing something unfavourable.

What can you do about it?

Call yourself out and question why it is you’ve formed this opinion of the candidate. Look for feedback from others; do they share the same opinion or has it been shaped by your own belief system?

10. Weight Bias

This is simply judging someone by their size. Worryingly, stats show that over half (54%) of women living with obesity reported weight-based stigma in the workplace.

What can you do about it?

If you find yourself making judgements about someone, simply consider how you’d feel if the person was thinner. Sure, it might shine an uncomfortable spotlight on your own thoughts and feelings – so just imagine how the candidate feels.

11. Name Bias 

This is just a basic, discriminatory act that involves a negative judgement around a person’s name. Unfortunately, this is often due to how “foreign” the name sounds.

What can you do about it?

Again, blind hiring can be useful – but also just being aware of this potential bias. Force yourself to look past a name, and focus on skills and experience instead.

All sounds great, in theory. But how do you stop these unhelpful thoughts from creeping into your day-to-day? 

Forget everything you (thought) you knew

Truly tackling unconscious bias starts with asking yourself some serious questions. OK, it might make you feel uneasy at first – but it’s the only way to move forward.

“Often, it’s easy to ‘call out’ people when we notice their microaggressions or biases. But it’s challenging to recognize and acknowledge these behaviours in ourselves. When we choose to become aware of our shortcomings, we can use what we discover to inform our leadership style and correct (or avoid perpetuating) discriminatory behaviour,” says Carmen Acton for Harvard Business Review.

The good thing is, there are some handy tools out there that can help. Harvard University has an Implicit Associations Test (IAT) which is designed to help users uncover any unconscious biases they might have. It includes areas like gender, career, race, skin tone, weight, disability, sexuality, religion and more. What’s more, Michigan State University has developed a virtual reality (VR) application called A Mile in My Shoes which is designed to help individuals recognise unconscious bias through different real-world situations. 

And it’s when you’ve put yourself in someone else’s shoes that you start to properly scrutinise your own belief system. 

Too busy firefighting and spinning your own plates? We get you. 

But to ensure your organisation is benefiting from the most diverse workforce, this is one task that just can’t be relegated to the bottom of those to-dos. 

“The key is to slow down and investigate your beliefs and assumptions so that you can see the other person for who they truly are. As a leader, it’s easy to think that you don’t have time to pause. But taking a few minutes to question yourself can make all the difference to you and your team,” recommends Acton at Harvard Business Review.

To do so, she recommends asking yourself the following: 

  • What core beliefs do I hold? How might these beliefs limit or enable me and my colleagues at work?
  • How do I react to people from different backgrounds? Do I hold stereotypes or assumptions about a particular social group?
  • As a manager, do I acknowledge and leverage differences on my team?
  • How would my team describe my leadership style if they were sharing their experience of working with me to others?
  • Do my words and actions actually reflect my intentions?
  • Do I put myself in the shoes of the other person and empathise with their situation, even if I don’t relate to it?

“When you pay attention to your answers, you’ll find patterns of thinking that will help you become aware of other biases that you may have,” she says.

And when it comes to unconscious bias, being aware that there’s a problem is the first step to pushing things forward. And whilst no one can get things right all of the time, recognising the deck is unfairly stacked against some is a great way to say 👋🏾 to unconscious bias and hello to a more diverse workforce.

Want to get serious about diversity and inclusion in your team? Then head to our grad recruitment app and check out today’s burgeoning talent.