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Removing Unconscious Bias from the Recruitment and Hiring Process
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Removing Unconscious Bias from the Recruitment and Hiring Process
By: IBIS Consulting Group, Inc.

All organizations would like to hire individuals that gel with their teams, but how do interviewers and hiring managers overcome the unconscious bias that leads to hiring new employees with duplicative experiences or a homogeneous approach? How do organizations transcend innate biological and social barriers to build high-performing, diverse and engaged teams that are able to connect with the broadest range of customer experiences? While this task can seem insurmountable, it is not impossible.

Unconscious Bias During Three Key Phases of the Hiring Process:
Position Posting, Resume Review Process, and the Interview Process

Position Postings
An organization must first assess its needs and should consider the following questions when devising a job posting: What are the knowledge, skills and experience needed for specific jobs in the organization?; What is the kind of fit for the organizational and team culture that managers are looking for?; What is the extent of a broad and diverse set of competencies across the team already - from thinking style to demographics?; Is the organization able to hire or develop employees that have an orientation to its clientele?; Is the organization thoughtfully building a team that can help the entire company achieve a vision? Devising a list of the essential qualifications of the employee in a particular role will play an important part in this and subsequent hiring phases.

The following are key points for any organization to consider when assembling a job posting:

• Clearly and simply describe the function of the role and its value to the organization
• Showcase the organization, its values, and its mission
• Write with an appeal to women and underrepresented minorities. A job positing should contain language that is gender-neutral and is written accessibly
• List the essential qualifications of the ideal candidate

Many employers would like to have more women in their applicant pools, particularly for positions where they are under-represented and rarely apply. The language used may easily impact the applicant pool as soon as a position is advertised. Masculine wording has been proven to discriminate against female job seekers. [Evidence that gendered wording in job advertisements exists and sustains gender inequality. Gaucher, Danielle; Friesen, Justin; Kay, Aaron C. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol 101(1), Jul 2011, 109-128]. Consider this example from a project manager job description:

“We are seeking a forceful Project Manager to lead the direction, coordination, implementation, and complication of a series of specific projects. We boast a challenging and fast-paced work environment that rewards self-reliance, focus and ambition.”

Research has shown that words that connote authority and command are more typically associated with men, while women are more associated with, and drawn to, words and phrases that connote collaboration and connection. This does not mean that women are never authoritative or that men dislike collaboration, it is simply an illustration of the importance of building an awareness of the association bias in job postings, so that the language appeals to the broadest qualified candidate pool possible.

Resume Review Process
Many hiring managers do not have the time to thoroughly review each resume received for a job posting. Typically, a fast sort is the method used, and resumes are assembled into three main groups: Those that are clearly not appropriate; those that are clearly appropriate; and then those that are questionable. Below, three common unconscious biases are examined in how they affect this sorting process: Attention Bias; Affinity Bias; and Association Bias.

Attention Bias inclines people to notice things that directly and overtly match what they are looking for, and ignore what we aren’t. Affinity Bias typically causes people to respond positively to those who share at least some important aspect of their own identities: Where they went to school; an employer in common, a part of the country in which they have both lived – and accord less merit to those who seem not to.

And with Association bias, people may unconsciously judge a resume based on the perceived gender, race, or ethnicity of the applicant. One of the best ways to guard against this last unconscious bias is to have an associate (perhaps a consultant from Human Resources) cross out applicants’ names and any other demographic identifiers before their resumes are distributed.

Another technique to help guard against unconscious bias is through a process called Priming. Priming entails keeping a list of the ten most essential qualifications for a given position while undertaking a review of resumes. This process allows a hiring manager to find evidence of those qualifications and be less distracted by information contained on an individual resume that diverts attention from the qualifications sought.

Dismissing a resume due to typographical errors is an example of a common sorting mechanism that many managers use when reading resumes and cover letters, because common assumptions about these kinds of errors can inevitably signal a variety of things about an applicant. For example, typos may indicate that an applicant is not thorough; does not pay attention to detail; does not value the job; is careless; is not well-educated; or is not professional. All of these assumptions are association biases, which prompts a common human reaction: “A person who does ‘this’ is the kind of person who is ‘that’.”

However, manager should keep in mind that typos can occur for many reasons, even distortions made by software systems applicants might be required to use for electronically submitting documents to a company. Should a typo automatically disqualify an applicant because they would not be a good fit? A common reaction might be that a person who is careful and attentive to detail would not let any typo go unnoticed. While close attention to detail may be true of some jobs, especially those that involve accurate, exact detail, like certain kinds of laboratory research, or written communication that is client- or customer-facing, many jobs do not. Managers may want to pay closer attention if they automatically associate typos with inferior candidates, or use mistakes as a sorting factor that may not be relevant when a job may not necessarily require accurate written language or attention to a fine level of detail. If a manager passes up on a candidate because of a misplaced comma, they may be dismissing someone who could be a valuable asset to the team, bringing in some different perspectives and experiences.

Interview Process
Unconscious biases can significantly impair the ability to be objective in the interview process. Here, too, is an important time to use a list of essential qualifications (the Priming Technique). Similar to resume reviews, an interviewer should prime themselves before interviewing candidates by re-reading a list of essential qualifications.

One of the best tools to counter unconscious bias in candidate job interviews is to ask behavioral questions. Asking candidates to describe how they have handled situations in the past is an effective way to assess their competencies for the current position.

Good behavioral questions ask candidates to describe past situations they were in, the actions they took, and the results of their actions. For example:

1. Have you ever had difficulty getting others to accept your ideas? What was your approach to overcome this hurdle? Did it work?
2. Give me an example of a time when you went above and beyond the call of duty.
3. Tell me about a situation when you had to speak up (be assertive) in order to get a point across that was important to you.
4. What have you done in the past to contribute toward a collaborative and team-based environment?
5. I’d like to know more about how you have handled competing priorities when scheduling your time. What’s an example of an important goal that you’ve set, and how did you achieve it?

Cultural Norms is another issue to keep in mind during the interview process. Human beings develop different assumptions and unconscious biases early in life. Different ethnic cultures around the globe have different cultural norms, resulting in very different unconscious assumptions about “How the World Should Work.” Cultures may differ on a variety of levels, including:

• Communication style: direct and forceful vs. indirect and gentle
• Presentation: formal vs. informal
• Language: business-oriented vs. colloquial
• Body Language: assertive/aggressive vs. non-assertive/neutral
• Attire: casual vs. formal
• Focus on individual leadership qualities vs. focus on contribution to the group
• Deference vs. assertiveness: Focus on skills vs. focus on values
• Attitudes about: gender, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, age, pregnancy status, appearance

When conducting interviews, managers should be very aware of assumptions about what is appropriate behavior, because often times, much of it comes from unconscious bias.

Finally, some additional best practices for making sure that a hiring manager is doing everything they can to handle interviews not just skillfully, but with as much attention to unconscious bias as possible:

1. Utilize the Priming Technique before each interview by reviewing it to ensure a focus on what matters most for the role.
2. Whenever feasible, have at least one other colleague in the interview. Inasmuch as is possible, seek out interview partners who are different in significant ways, including gender, age, race, work responsibilities, and thinking style. Doing this allows a candidate to be experienced through multiple lenses. Helpful in advance is for both interviewers to be familiar with the list of desired qualifications. Interview assessments should be made separately, with respective conclusions compared in a debrief session.
3. Use a behavioral interviewing process in which all candidates are asked the same questions about actions they have taken and experiences they have had in the past. Getting specific examples of how a person has operated in the past, rather than having them speculate about how they think they might handle something in the future will give a hiring manager more accurate information about candidates.
4. Finally, a manager should be aware of the natural impulse to connect with or dismiss a candidate based on a reaction to them personally. Affinity Bias naturally inclines people to connect with others with whom they have things in common, however, affinity does not necessarily yield the best candidates.

Unconscious bias is normal and natural, but that does not mean it is healthy or productive. Managers must make a conscious effort to interview with intention in order to build an organization that can attract and retain the best and most diverse range of talent.

If you would like to learn more about our how IBIS can help your organization or to find out more about our e-learning programs on Unconscious Bias, please email us at or call us at 508-283-1423.


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