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Understanding Unconscious Bias in Hiring

By January 19, 2023September 5th, 2023Diversity and Inclusion

We all have unconscious biases. Unconscious bias refers to underlying stereotypes and attitudes we unknowingly use to help us process and understand situations and the world around us. Naturally, they also can have a huge impact on the recruitment process. In this blog, we’re diving deeper into how we develop these unconscious biases and how we can combat them in our hiring decisions.

In this prior blog about unconscious biases, we discussed how unconscious biases can come into play throughout the recruitment process. We also shared tips for mitigating or removing unconscious biases so we can make better, and more sound, hiring decisions. But, how and when do we get unconscious biases?

What are Heuristics?

Our brains can process roughly 11 million bits of information every second but we can only consciously process about 40 bits at a time. This means we have to take unconscious shortcuts called heuristics to make quick decisions.

Heuristics are cognitive tools we develop over time to help us make decisions and judgments.

Just like physical shortcuts, though they may make our daily life easier, they are not guaranteed to be perfect – or even rational. Heuristics can cause us to unconsciously make rapid-fire judgments that aren’t always accurate.

These quick, unconscious judgements accumulate into biases that influence how we perceive and interact with others. Since we all fall victim to unconscious bias, we are able to categorize them into various types.

Types of Heuristics

Here are 7 different heuristics and biases that can affect how we make hiring decisions:

1. Affinity Bias 

Also known as “similar to me” bias. Affinity bias is the unconscious tendency to favor certain people simply because they are like us. This can be anything from race, location, educational background, or even favorite sports teams. We tend to gravitate towards people who look, act, or think like us.

2. Anchoring Heuristic

When making decisions, we tend to rely heavily on an initial piece of information offered – also known as “the anchor.” In recruitment, this anchor appears in the initial first impressions of a candidate. For example, on a resume, you may first notice that the candidate graduated from a prestigious college. Or, if a candidate shows up with too much perfume, looking disheveled, or isn’t making eye contact during an interview.

3. Attractiveness Bias

Also known as beauty bias, attractiveness bias leads us to view attractive people as better and more competent. “Unattractive people” refers people that don’t fit societal norms or standards of beauty in areas of dress, size, tattoos, or race to name a few.

Though it may sound superficial, research suggests that “physically attractive people are more likely to be interviewed and hired.” In addition, “they’re more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and earn higher wages.” 

4. Halo Effect

After discovering a single positive aspect of a candidate, we often allow it to affect how we view them in all other aspects. For example, if someone you like talks positively about a candidate, you are more likely to view them positively and associate more positive traits to them. Hence, allowing that one positive aspect to cloud how you view them and any clear negative traits. 

5. Horns Effect

The horns effect is the opposite of the halo effect. It’s where we allow a single negative aspect of a candidate affect how we view them in all other aspects. Let’s say you have a candidate who went to a rival school you dislike or was in a club or sport you do not like. You’re likely to unconsciously associate more negative traits to this to them and be are more likely to generally view them negatively.

6. Confirmation Bias

The confirmation bias is the unconscious tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information that confirms our preexisting beliefs, all while discrediting and discarding any information that does not fit our beliefs. If we make a quick judgment call on a candidate early in the recruitment process we can end up just looking for reasons to confirm our thinking. This bias can build upon other biases exacerbating our poor decision making.

7. Conformity Bias

We have an unconscious tendency to conform to a larger group and to try and please others around us. We’ve all experienced a strong desire to want to fit in or at least have group harmony. This desire can be powerful and can cause us not to use independent judgment and go along with poor decisions.

A great example of this is the Solomon Asch conformity experiments. Even though the people in the study knew the group was answering wrong they did not want to speak up which caused them to knowingly select the wrong answer.

We may see this in the recruitment and hiring decision process if people on our team don’t feel comfortable openly sharing their views.

Combatting Heuristics & Unconscious Biases

Each of these heuristics and biases can cause us to make hiring decisions that aren’t based on job-relevant information. These social versus skills-based decisions often result in overlooking talent that could add value to your team!

Remember, these are unconscious tendencies. So, we understand that these sorts of judgments aren’t intentional. However, you need intention in order to combat these heuristics throughout the recruitment process.

Here are three steps that can help you in combating unconscious biases in your hiring process:

1. Taking your time and reducing distractions

When making hiring decisions, take your time to think through all of the information you’ve gathered. Focus on the skills and background on the candidate as those directly impact how they will likely perform on the job.  During this thoughtful deliberation, try to reduce distractions that may be hindering your focus. This will look different for each of us! Organizing information into lists of things you should ignore or prioritize may help.

2. Ask for other opinions and perspectives

Our “gut” instincts tend to follow our unconscious tendencies and biases religiously. So, don’t blindly trust it! Instead, ask other people on your team for their opinion of the candidate and gather outside perspectives. This additional information can help reveal whether you’re placing certain candidates higher for reasons other than relevant skills.

3. Hire for the skills needed for the job

Whether we realize it or want to admit it, we all have biases that can cause us to make poor decisions. Making a list of specific skills needed to be qualified for a job and, what skills are a bonus, is one of the best things we can do to combat heuristics and unconscious biases when hiring. Having a specific role outlined like this, or in a format that you can check off, can help you keep focus during the decision-making process. 

Creating a diverse and inclusive team starts with recruiting diverse and inclusive teams. Combatting unconscious bias is the first step in ensuring we are recruiting talent based on their talent.

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