Is Unconscious Bias Affecting Your Hiring Process?

by Valorie Waldon, B.A., SPHR, SHRM-SCP Director, Human Resource Services

Bulletin,  Hiring

We have all been told that first impressions are lasting impressions. This seems particularly true in the hiring process. Often, supervisors, managers, and even recruiters make decisions to hire or not to hire an individual within the first five to 10 minutes of an interview. A person is selected based on the interviewer’s initial impression, rather than the candidate’s qualifications. Unfortunately, these first impressions may be masking unconscious biases and undermining the organization’s commitment to diversity and equal employment opportunity.  

What is “unconscious bias”? It is placing people into categories that we form outside of our conscious awareness. One researcher defines it as “mental shortcuts based on social norms and stereotypes.” These biases are created based upon our personal experiences, our environment, and a number of social sources, including movies, music, and news. They color the way that we experience the world and the lens through which we see others. These views are not voluntary: we don’t even know that they are forming, and everyone has them.

Each day, we are faced with millions of pieces of information at any given moment. The human mind is only able to process about 40 pieces of information at a time, so it creates shortcuts, using past experience to build assumptions. It is said to be the mind’s way of organizing information before we even become aware of it. These biases help us process information and make decisions quickly. When this process is used to understand people, scientists refer to it as social categorization, our natural tendency to sort people into specific groups. Social categorization is not something that happens as a result of premeditation. It happens spontaneously.

Unfortunately, the groupings that we place people into are often based on prior experiences, and/or stereotypes, leading to biases that may not be legal. Research has shown that we spontaneously categorize each other based on many different group affiliations, including—but not limited to—race and gender.

Researchers have identified and named over 150 unconscious biases, several of which directly impact an organization’s hiring efforts. Following are types of bias that are most common in the interview process.

Affinity bias: The tendency to prefer people that we believe are like us. This bias may be the one that most affects the hiring process.

Halo/Horn effect: This occurs when a single characteristic or strong point made by the candidate influences the entire interview process; everything else is positive, or everything else is negative.

Confirmatory Bias: This type of bias occurs when we adopt a view of a candidate and then only see as credible information that confirms our view while rejecting information that opposes it. For example, a manager determines that he dislikes a candidate based on the first impression then spends the remainder of the interview looking for responses and behaviors that confirm his original opinion of the candidate.  

So, what can your organization do to mitigate the impact of bias on your hiring process? Here are several simple steps:

  • Acknowledge that bias exists and may have an impact on your hiring process. Provide awareness training to help employees understand bias and the roles it plays in the workplace and in our lives.
  • Build a structured hiring process and eliminate unstructured interviews. Focus on the skills and characteristics needed to perform successfully in the job. Develop interview questions that link directly to those factors, and use a combination of behavior-based and situational questions.
  • Record candidates’ answers immediately after they respond. Not only does this decrease bias, but it lets candidates know you are taking the interview seriously. Have more than one interviewer, each applying the same job-related criteria.
  • Compare candidate answers question-by-question rather than rating candidates based on “overall impression.”
  • Consider using assessment instruments as a component in determining the candidate’s fit for the job.

We can’t eliminate all bias. Acknowledging, understanding, and addressing unconscious biases can support your organization’s commitment to diversity. Science has shown that diverse groups, including those demonstrating social diversity, are better at innovation and problem solving than homogeneous groups. For questions regarding recruiting, interviewing, and pre-employment screening, MSEC’s HR professionals are here to help assess situations and provide guidance.

About the author
Valorie Waldon, B.A., SPHR, SHRM-SCP Director, Human Resource Services

Valorie Waldon has been a consultant with Employers Council since 2007, most recently within the Integrated Human Capital Services department, and is now Director of the department. In her role she consults, advises and trains on issues such as HR metrics and analytics, performance management, recruitment and selection, and employee relations. Prior to coming to the Council, Valorie had over 20 years of human resource management experience in both the public and private sectors. She is a graduate of the University of Colorado at Boulder and holds SPHR and SHRM-SCP certifications.