Ways to overcome recruitment bias

Recruitment bias is when an employer creates an opinion about a candidate based on initial impressions alone or irrelevant criteria, such as gender, race, or age. Recruitment bias can be either conscious or unconscious. Conscious bias is when interviewers can recognise their own preferences, for example, they might know they prefer to work with men over women and so hire more men. Alternatively, bias might occur subconsciously which is when you follow your intuition rather than facts and critical thinking. This can stem from stereotypes or personal past experiences that you don’t realise still impact your decision-making. Both types of bias will equally have a negative impact on diversity within the company, therefore it is essential that we understand how both can occur and how to prevent it to help both the business and potential employees.


Types of recruitment biases

Some evidence has suggested that the average person makes roughly 35,000 decisions, so it isn’t surprising that some of these decisions are made subconsciously. For some decisions this is perfectly appropriate, however when it comes to hiring, we must try to choose the ideal candidate objectively. This means judging them based on their skills and experience, rather than any external factors. According to a study, 52% of interviewers say they had made a decision about a candidate in the first 5 to 15 minutes of an interview, and even 5% said they are made in the first minute, suggesting there is some recruitment bias at play.

Here are a few common hiring biases to be aware of:


1. Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias is when we make a quick judgment and then spend time trying to justify our bias. It involves favouring, interpreting, and recalling information that confirms their existing assumptions. The search for information means they have to look for information that fits their belief, the favouring of information means they give more focus to the information that supports their judgment, interpretation means they subjectively interpret the information to suit what they think and finally the recall of information means that confirmation bias remembers more of the information that supports their feelings, rather than that that refutes it. For example, in the hiring process, this might mean we ask irrelevant questions to a candidate, hoping to elicit answers that match our preconceptions. This can work both ways, if we have decided we like the ‘look’ of someone, or you both have something in common you might start looking for answers that make the person good for the job. On the other hand, if you decide early on that you don’t like someone for whatever reason, you might home in on the negatives during the interview.


2. Affect heuristics

This is when the recruiter takes a short time to reach a conclusion about a candidate’s ability to do the job, rather than taking the time to look at evidence of their skills. This will mean you are judging them based on superficial factors, like a particular trait or aspect of their personality. This might be their age, gender, whether they have tattoos, or if they remind you of someone you know (for good or for bad). Whilst this can be a good way of saving time if you have time pressures to hire someone, this is not practically a good way of hiring employees and will lead to a lack of diversity and inclusivity.

Dual process theory is a cognitive theory that suggests we have two separate cognitive systems for decision-making. System 1 is fast, effortless, automatic, and emotional, whereas System 2 is deliberate, logical, and takes time and effort. Affect heuristic falls into the system 1 thinking category. Whilst this way of thinking doesn’t necessarily mean a bad decision will be made, when hiring, it can increase the chances that you miss out on creating diversity in your company if you immediately decide to hire people because they’re like other people in your company. It also can mean you miss out on finding out more about a person and their skills and ultimately miss out on a good hire.


3. Halo and horn effect

The halo and horn effect occurs when an employee is either highly-competent or incompetent in one area and then is judged as being highly competent/incompetent in all areas of their work even though this might not be the case. The halo effect is when the employer/interviewer focuses too heavily on a positive aspect of a candidate and over-looking the negatives and lets the ‘golden halo’ guide the decision-making process. On the other hand, the horn effect is the opposite. Instead, it is when something negative overpowers any positives about the candidate. This could lead to employers missing out on good talent because they have formed an opinion based on little information.

In hiring this can mean the first impression of a candidate overshadows any positive or negative attributes. An example of this might be interviewing a person that comes across as confident and so assume they are intelligent and great at their job, however, the two don’t necessarily correlate and you should take more time to investigate their skills and experiences. Another example is if someone is late for their interview or first day, you assume they are always late, so when they are next late it reinforces this thinking even if it happened months later. You might then generalise this to them being lazy, even though this might not be the case.


4. Overconfidence bias

The overconfidence bias comes into play when a recruiter feels confident in their ability to decipher between good and bad candidates that they don’t take the time to think critically about the candidate and instead assume they immediately ‘can tell’ who’s going to be good and bad.


5. Similarity attraction bias

The similarity attraction bias is when the recruiter is more inclined to hire a candidate because they are like them in some way. Whilst it is normal to want to hire people you have a rapport with, and this can be a good thing as you want people in the company to get along, it can also mean you miss out on good talent just because they aren’t the same as you. This will reduce diversity in your company and make the company appear to lack inclusivity. This is particularly detrimental if you are basing these similarities on an attribute that isn’t related to job performance. For example, if the commonality is going to the same school or both being men.


6. Conformity bias

Conformity bias is slightly different from many other forms of bias as it isn’t based on our own judgments, instead, they let other people’s decisions impact their own. It is a result of the fear of not wanting to go against our peers and be an outcast, so they don’t voice their own thoughts and opinions and just ‘conform’. Not all conformity is bad because if most people agree on something and one person doesn’t, that person might be missing something that others can see. However, it might also be that everyone is conforming to what just one person is thinking without realising it. It is always good to still give your opinion because you never know, you might be seeing something that the others aren’t, and it might be a valid point in the decision-making. This ‘clique’ type behaviour can also lead to the exclusion of other people and maybe even certain groups of people e.g., people that are older than them or have different religious beliefs, resulting in a lack of diversity and inclusivity.

A way this type of bias may occur in the hiring process is if interviewers share their thoughts on the candidate, it may cause other interviewers to change their perspectives, so they align with their peers. A person may choose to conform for many reasons, such as they want to agree with and impress their boss, they may be a new member of staff and feel their opinion isn’t as valid or they might be younger than the other interviewers and feel they aren’t experienced enough to disagree.


7. Age bias

Age bias refers to treating applicants differently because of their age, whether this is being too old or too young. Hirers may feel someone might be too young to have enough skills and experience for the job, alternatively, they might think someone older won’t have enough of a good memory or will be old-fashioned in their way of thinking and working. Some researchers have compared CV’s that differed only in dates of birth and years of graduation and it showed that when they applied for more senior roles they found a rate of 30% more discrimination in favour of older applications.

Research has also shown that those that are 50 years and older are more likely to feel they are at a disadvantage applying for jobs because of their age. It was also found that older people feel employers don’t want to recruit them as much because they feel they won’t stay in the job for long, despite them having no plans to retire any time soon. Also, being less adaptable, less physically and mentally able, and having less ambition were other factors older people felt were reasons they weren’t offered jobs. Shockingly, a study has shown that more than 60% of those over 45 have experienced ageism at some point.


You can read more about ageism here.


8. Gender bias

Gender bias is when someone is more inclined to hire an applicant because of their gender. The Equality Act 2010 made it illegal to discriminate in the workplace and treat someone unfairly based on their gender. Despite this, our Women in Tech survey showed a staggering 76% of the respondents said that they have experienced gender bias or discrimination in the workplace at least once. Unfortunately, it is not just during the hiring phase that this can be seen, it can also be seen in the lack of senior and leadership roles held by women. This can also be seen more frequently in some industries, compared to others. For example, in STEM fields women only make up 26% of the workforce. This is a shame as bringing more women on board, particularly in more senior positions, offers a fresh way of looking at things, and other ways of problem-solving and a balanced team will be able to innovate more effectively.


You can find some tips on how to attract women into senior positions here.


How to reduce recruitment biases


Rework job descriptions

Although it is difficult to completely get rid of recruitment bias, there are practices you can put into place to reduce the chances of it occurring. Reworking your job descriptions is a great first step to reducing recruitment bias as this is the first thing people looking for a job will see and so will give the first impression of the company’s culture. One factor to consider is whether you are using masculine language e.g. ‘competitive’, as this will give the impression to potential female candidates that the company is male-dominated and they may not fit in. Instead, you can use language like ‘collaborative’ and ‘cooperative’. Whilst this is important in all industries, this may be predominately important in fields such as tech as they are already mostly made up of men, therefore it is good to encourage more women to join.

Job adverts are also a great time to show off your company’s commitment to diversity and inclusivity. One of these ways is using the neutral language we discussed in the previous paragraph, but the format of the job advert is another factor you can consider. This includes ensuring it is accessible to those with disabilities, such as dyslexia and visual impairments. If your adverts don’t do this, you are already posing a bias towards those without disabilities and cutting out a large pool of talents. In fact, a study in Intel has shown that 56% of Gen Z respondents said they are less likely to take a job if the company does not have diversity in leadership roles. Therefore, it is crucial to show your commitment to diversity to increase your breadth of applications. Also, listing your employee benefits will encourage a larger talent pool to apply and can be particularly impressive to women looking for a job if certain benefits are included. You can read more about the top 5 incentives for women here.


Staff training

Another way employers can attempt this is by training staff on types of bias and the impact it has on individuals and the business. Diversity and bias training isn’t just valuable in recruiting, but it will also help employees to foster an inclusive environment throughout their careers so everyone can thrive and help stop discrimination in the workplace as they’ll be able to identify it and avoid it.  For example, Project Implicit is a non-profit organization that investigates implicit social cognition, or thoughts and feelings that are largely outside of conscious awareness and control. They people become more aware of implicit bias and, more importantly, use that awareness to align their actions with their intentions, make better decisions, and build organizations where everyone can thrive.

One of their educating sessions involves participants engaging in a series of brainstorming and problem-solving activities to identify opportunities for change and explore actionable steps to reduce bias in individual and group decision-making. This can be specific to an audience or topic, such as recruitment, hiring, feedback, retention, and mentoring. A huge 93% of participants left the session with concrete strategies to mitigate the negative impact of unwanted biases, indicating that training can be largely beneficial to employees.


Changing hiring processes

Arguably the most beneficial way to help reduce recruitment bias is to change the hiring process. One way of doing this is to implement blind hiring which involves removing and identifying details about candidates in their CVs such as gender, age, race and sexual orientation. This will mean an employer can’t be influenced by conscious or subconscious bias and they must purely make a decision based on the skills and experience they have acquired, levelling out the playing field. This will help narrow applicants down to those that will be able to carry out the job and will show the company is dedicated to improving diversity and inclusivity.

Research has shown that “white-sounding” names get 50% more callbacks than “black sounding” names and one in five women experiences gender discrimination in recruitment. If blind hiring had been implemented in these cases, it is likely the candidates’ chances of getting considered during the recruitment process would have been more equal, increasing the diversity of the company.


Using skill set tests

Using a skill set test during the hiring process is also a good way to reduce recruitment bias as it will produce quantitative, objective data that clearly shows which hopefuls would be best suited to the role. This means you won’t be picking someone just because of the way they look or something you have in common which otherwise can lead to people that are unqualified for the role to be hired, then will be likely to leave the job later. It has also been shown that organizations that use pre-hire screenings report a 39% lower staff turnover rate and are 24% more likely to have employees who exceed performance goals. In addition, it will help to narrow down all the applications as you will probably be able to disregard the lowest-performing individuals. Setting up a skills test will also help you to identify what skills, experience and competencies your company needs from a new employee.


Standardising interview questions

Standardising your interview questions involves having a pre-planned structure for your questions and it is a good idea to score each interview at the end, so you remember exactly how you felt about each interview, rather than later trying to compare them, and not fully remembering each one. This will reduce confirmation bias as it will mean you won’t ask specific questions in and effort to entice answers you want to in order to confirm your judgements. It will also mean all candidates get a fair chance, especially if different interviewers are doing the interviews because they each might have different styles and ask different types of questions. For example, if some interviewers ask more technical questions and some ask more personality-style questions.

A good pointer for creating an unbiased interview is to have open-ended questions, so it can create a discussion, rather than just have yes/no answers as this can make it difficult to compare candidates as they might answer the same. Having a mix of technical/situational (depending on the role you are interviewing) and behavioural/personality questions is also a good idea as you can get an idea of both sides of a person. The technical/situations questions might be something like ‘Think back to a time you felt like you had succeeded at something at work. How did you achieve this?’ and behavioural/personality might be ‘Tell me about a time when you faced a conflict while working on a team. How did you handle that and what was the outcome?’.


Use multiple interviewers

It is also good to have multiple interviewers, so you can then compare scores (only after each has written down their notes and scores to avoid conformity bias) and hopefully there will be one or two candidates that did well with everyone. If not, it would then be good to discuss what it is you’re looking for and what went right or wrong about each candidate so you can all try to be on the same page going forward. Lastly, setting diversity goals is an effective way for companies to make sure they are being inclusive and if not, it will highlight any issues that may be occurring because of biases.

If you’re looking for some tips on how to succeed on your interviews, you can find here.


Benefits of reducing recruitment bias

There are many reasons to reduce recruitment bias in your business. We have already touched on how it increases your talent pool hugely if your company appears to be unbiased, diverse and inclusive which will help you choose the best possible employee for your company. If you appear to be exclusive, people are less likely to apply for your jobs and, in turn, you will miss out on hiring some great people. Being able to hire people with different backgrounds, genders, beliefs etc will mean you will have a well-rounded team that helps with innovation, creativity and problem-solving. It also means employees can learn from each other and gain new skills which will help both individuals and the organisation.

If you allow recruitment biases to occur, it can ultimately result in a high turnover rate. For instance, if you hire someone because you have something in common, or they look a certain way, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have the skills to do the job, therefore they might struggle once they start the work. Eventually, they will either decide to leave or the company will decide it’s not a good fit and they’ll have to start the recruitment process again from the start. This will waste time and money for the company, and they will also have to spend time training a new member of staff.

Find more steps on how to improve your hiring process here.