Is your hiring process biased?

hiring bias
Posted on 09 July 2024 In Diversity

As a recruiter or hiring manager who believes in fairness, you’ll endeavour to offer all applicants equal opportunities. It’s not just because it’s the right thing to do. After all, your task is to find the best candidate for every post you’re working to fill.

But there’s a concern you can’t ignore: hiring bias. You’d probably be the first to say that you work hard to avoid making biased decisions, but bias is often unconscious – making it all the more difficult to counter. In this article, we’ll look at the varying ways bias can rear its head during the hiring process, and how to safeguard candidates from biased hiring decisions.

What is hiring bias?

Hiring bias is when a person’s demographic or personal characteristics unfairly help or hinder them during the hiring process. It’s often so subtle that you may fail to realize it’s influencing your decisions. However, many HR professionals acknowledge conscious bias against certain characteristics when hiring. A troubling survey found that 15% of managers admitted to being influenced by age. A similar percentage confessed that race influences them, and 9% acknowledged conscious bias against disabled candidates. 

What is the impact of hiring bias?

You don’t hire the best person for the job

From an organization’s perspective, bias can lead to hires that don’t represent the best talent they could have acquired. Not only does this defeat the primary goal of the hiring process, it also does candidates a disservice by placing them in roles for which they are likely unsuitable. This raises myriad issues, from decreased productivity to higher staff turnover rates.

You fail to realize the advantages of a diverse workforce

Hiring bias often creates homogenous workforces, so organizations are unlikely to benefit from one of the main benefits of a diverse team – a wider range of ideas and perspectives. 

Researchers point out that this could represent missed opportunities including reduced capacity for innovation and slower, less creative problem-solving. According to McKinsey, hiring bias can also impact financial outcomes. Its research indicates that companies with diverse workforces are 37% more likely to outperform their peers

Reputational harm: Top talent doesn’t apply

Hiring bias can hurt your organization’s capacity to attract talent. According to Washington State University, there’s evidence that up to 68% of job seekers would only apply for work in diverse organizations. A similar percentage of people have greater trust in organizations with a demonstrable commitment to workplace diversity.

Failing to eliminate hiring bias can also damage an organization’s reputation. For instance, if an employer is reported to the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, it may lead to costly lawsuits and widespread negative publicity.

Understanding the different types of hiring bias

Explicit bias

Although one might think that explicit bias represents the worst form of unashamed racism, sexism, or homophobia, it can be much more insidious than that. For example, you may feel that consciously favoring candidates who went to the best schools is a great idea. But, your very best candidate may have attended a less well-known school or have no degree but plenty of relevant experience.

Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias is the conscious or unconscious search for information that confirms a preconceived expectation. Researchers have termed this a “bias blind spot.” Although you may not have articulated the vision you’re inadvertently trying to confirm, those who don’t fit into it (either by personal characteristics such as name or age or circumstances like education and experience) are at a disadvantage.

The halo effect

The halo effect is a positive bias towards people with a specific trait. It may lead recruiters to attribute a slew of additional positive characteristics to applicants who exhibit it. Although it’s not the only example of the halo effect, beauty bias is an obvious example.

Beauty bias is a cross-cultural phenomenon that causes us to attribute positive characteristics to physically attractive people. Because of the halo effect, we’re inclined to credit good-looking candidates with greater intelligence, trustworthiness, and competence based on appearance alone. Thus, we can be “blinded by beauty,” and fail to recognize real evidence of positive attributes in other candidates who don’t adhere to certain beauty standards.

Stereotyping bias

Stereotypes are harder to combat than you may have believed. Our brains are programmed to form rapid impressions of those around us – it’s an instinctive process with wired-in neurological roots. While stereotyping may have been a survival mechanism in bygone eras, it has no place in modern-day hiring decisions. All the same, we’re inclined to stereotype people based on factors such as gender, race, culture and ability.

Based on our frame of reference, a stereotype may be positive or negative, but stereotypical hiring will always be biased, even when it disadvantages groups we’d generally see as favored. For example, men are less likely to be hired in roles we unconsciously stereotype as feminine. 

In-group bias (Affinity bias)

Separate from stereotyping (but in a similar vein), in-group bias occurs when recruiters favor applicants they identify as being “like them.” For example, a hiring bias study found that younger managers are inclined to rate younger applicants more highly than older ones

In-group bias can apply to many characteristics, none of which have any real bearing on competence. Apart from age, it includes attributes like gender, race, social class and professional background.

Status quo bias

Status quo bias occurs when recruiters prefer applicants they perceive as having characteristics that match existing conditions. For example, you might unconsciously try to find candidates who seem similar to their predecessors, or who share certain characteristics with other shortlisted candidates.

A study showed that shortlisting more than one “unusual” candidate may help to counter status quo bias. For example, the presence of two women in a shortlist of males increased the chance of a woman being hired by 79%. However, if only one woman was shortlisted, her chance of being hired was near to zero. 

Order effects

Memory plays tricks on us and order effects illustrate this well. Primacy effects may mean that the information we receive first has more influence on us than what we receive later on. Recency effects are the flip side of this. It means we find the most recent data we received more memorable than preceding datasets. 

It’s part of how our memories work, but it can bias our decision-making. In practice, the first and last interviews you conduct will leave the most lasting impression, and the candidates who are assigned these prime spots may stand a better chance of being hired.

Strategies for reducing hiring bias

Eliminate biased language from job descriptions and ads

It’s harder to create a job ad that attracts a wide diversity of applicants than you may anticipate. Apart from the obvious need to avoid gendered pronouns for ideal candidates, certain language choices might give job hunters the impression that you’re specifically searching for male or female applicants. For example, researchers found that words like “lead”, “competitive”, and “dominant” connote masculine stereotypes whereas words like “support”, “understand”, and “interpersonal” have feminine associations.

Job ads begin with job descriptions. Start by revising them to eliminate gendered language, and use similar language in your job ads. By doing so, you’ll attract a greater range of applicants. Fortunately, you don’t need to use your intuition to eliminate the less-than-obvious gendered wording from job descriptions and ads. You can use a straightforward job ad evaluation app that utilizes evidence-based research to help you.

Finally, don’t fall into the trap of listing skills and qualities that aren’t strictly necessary. Research has shown that women are less likely to apply for jobs if they can’t fulfil all the requirements listed. Men, on the other hand, will apply even when they only meet 60% of the requirements.

Advertise widely and try new channels

The more applicants you attract, the more likely you are to attract great applicants. At the same time, a large pool of applicants might not include a demographically representative population sample.

Apart from advertising widely, you can ensure that your ad is seen by people from traditionally underrepresented groups by targeting specific websites and job boards. Programmatic advertising can be very helpful in expanding your ad’s reach. It allows you to set the parameters for your advertising, including targeted demographics and your budget. You can also evaluate ad performance on the go, tweaking parameters to target certain groups and ensure a diverse applicant pool. At the same time, you can consciously target certain job boards. For example, some diversity job boards are focused on female, black, LGBTQ+ or disabled job seekers.

Implement blind resume screening

As we’ve seen, the potential for biased recruiting begins with job descriptions and job ads. But, as every recruiter will know, the resume screening process can be an arduous task at times. If you have hundreds of applicants, you may be actively looking for reasons to eliminate candidates and unconscious bias can influence your decisions.

For example, most applicants will include a photograph of themselves, and all of them will give their names. Name bias in recruitment has been well documented. Notoriously, bias against people with “black-sounding” names in the US has been confirmed. However, similar studies in Sweden found that “Swedish-sounding” names were preferred. It appears that recruiters spot names that indicate “otherness,” based on race or nationality in names, and that bias is the inevitable consequence.

Blind resume screening eliminates these two areas where bias can impact applicants’ chances. Better yet, programmatic resume screening using AI-powered technology can be even more effective at eliminating bias.

Using AI comes with a caveat. Some tools are better than others, and if AI is trained on a non-representative data set, it can even introduce bias. For example, the University of Melbourne in Australia found that a Chat GPT-based AI was automatically downgrading applicants who had taken parental leave. Choose a proven applicant ranking system using algorithms focused on skills and suitability.

Implement skills testing and work samples

Skills testing and work samples can help you to identify your most skilled applicants – as long as the tests themselves don’t introduce bias. Formulate tests to address key skills only. Keep the explanatory language straightforward and to the point, and evaluate answers based purely on the skills for which you were testing. 

Automation can make skills testing a less onerous task, and many businesses are implementing it before shortlisting, allowing a greater range of candidates to demonstrate their abilities. 

Build a diverse shortlist

Even with technology to help you, you may not end up with a diverse shortlist. To eliminate status quo bias, you’ll need at least two applicants from each underrepresented group. 

This may mean targeting your advertising to attract more underrepresented applicants, manually upgrading candidates that didn’t quite make your initial shortlist, or contacting former candidates whose details you kept on your database. 

Select diverse hiring panels

Affinity bias can be very difficult to combat – but if your hiring panel is diverse, there’s less likelihood of it affecting the final hiring decision. Although some applicants might find panel interviews a little intimidating, the wider range of perspectives you’ll get from a diverse panel can help mitigate any affinity biases that might otherwise creep in. 

Standardize interviews

Standardizing interviews to cover specific questions asked in the same order helps to eliminate cognitive bias. Simply put, you’re using comparable information and that limits subjective decision-making. Use the following principles to develop your standardized interviews:

Formulate questions based on required skills and candidates’ current skill sets

To successfully structure an interview, begin by considering the top skills you’d like your successful candidate to have. Use this information to formulate questions that test these skills using current knowledge rather than past experience. For example, you won’t ask “Give an example of an occasion in which you successfully sold a software package.” Instead, consider asking your candidates to deliver a sales pitch to the panel.

Skills-based questions: Use hypotheticals – not history

There are good reasons for working with hypothetical situations in an interview setting. If you ask candidates for anecdotes from past experiences, their responses may lead to bias. 

Perhaps you don’t like the organization they worked for or they made (and acknowledge) a mistake. Despite their professional growth since then, you may gain a negative impression based on past circumstances. 

Each skills-based question should be phrased so that candidates can deliver their best answers based on current knowledge and skills. Develop questions that cover common workplace tasks and dilemmas. Responses will show how your candidate would deal with them based on their current level of expertise.

Use case-study questions

You can take a similar approach to case study questions. They represent larger tasks or projects that apply to the role your chosen candidate would occupy. You can allow for follow-up questions for clarification, but all applicants should be granted the same opportunities during interviews.

Develop a skills rubric to grade applicants

Going by gut feel is an almost surefire way to open the door to bias. When developing your structured interview, formulate scoring criteria that your panel will use to evaluate applicants. Apply them to every interview question. A simple one to five-star rating broadly describing why an applicant would earn each rating level works well. Not only are applicants being asked the same questions, they’re being rated on the same job-related criteria.

For example, if planning and problem-solving abilities are vital skills that an interview question targets, your panel can rate applicants based purely on their responses. They could allocate a one-star rating when candidates clearly lack planning and problem-solving ability; three stars if they had a workable plan but left some loopholes open; and five stars if they presented a clear, logical plan of action.

Measure candidate satisfaction

Having gone to a great deal of effort to eliminate biases in hiring, you’d like to know how you’re doing – both on this point and the overall candidate experience. Provide an anonymous online questionnaire and ask candidates to offer their honest views. Understanding your recruitment process from your candidates’ experience may indicate areas for future improvement. 

Audit your recruitment process frequently

There are many reasons why recruitment process audits are helpful. Use them to enhance efficiency, reduce costs and look for elements that may introduce bias. For example, you can analyze your advertising strategy and resume screening parameters compared to the demographics of the applicants you attracted and the ones you shortlisted.   

Gather feedback from stakeholders including managers, employees, and candidates. Map candidate journeys across every touchpoint in the recruitment process. Review job descriptions, job ads, and resume screening criteria. Examine skills tests and interview questions and determine their effectiveness in eliminating bias and evaluating skills.

Leverage technology to combat implicit bias in hiring and streamline recruitment

While implementing all the ways of reducing bias in hiring might sound like hard work, it can be surprisingly easy. With the right suite of tools to help you, you can even achieve faster times to hire and realize cost savings while still combatting hiring bias. 

With the right technology on your side, you can craft more inclusive job ads, advertise posts across a wider range and diversity of platforms, rank employees using unbiased machine intelligence, and manage applicant journeys more effectively. 

Whatever your recruitment goals, Broadbean has a suite of tools to help you. Our carefully chosen partner network offers you the technological advantages you need to achieve your recruiting goals easily, effectively, and efficiently. Request a demo today.

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