9 Types of Unconscious Bias in Recruitment and How Your Business Can Kick Them To The Curb

8-9 Minutes

Inclusivity. It's one of the most essential elements in recruiting and retaining top-tier ta...

By Emily Davies

Senior Content Writer

Inclusivity. It's one of the most essential elements in recruiting and retaining top-tier talent. Seems simple, right? Wrong. Because we're human and our brains organise our worlds into categories, we all hold unconscious beliefs about different social identity groups. This can cause us to unintentionally judge others, and recruitment is not immune to this fault.

No matter who we are or where we come from, we all have our own levels of unconscious bias – it's human nature – but it can also be a huge hindrance when it comes to recruiting the best people for your business.

But, if biases operate unconsciously, how can we identify when they're creeping in and clouding our judgement?

Well, this article is the first step. Throughout this post, we'll delve into what exactly unconscious bias is, the different types of bias that arise in recruitment, and how you can ditch them from your business.

What Is Unconscious Bias?

You know, the human brain processes 11 million pieces of information every second, yet our minds can only handle between 14-60 bits of information. So, to allow us to function, our brains create mental shortcuts by finding patterns in different things and people so we can psychologically categorise the information we're taking in.

Since we organise our experiences into categories, and most of this is done unconsciously, we all develop beliefs, judgments, associations, and social stereotypes about the world around us without even realising we're doing so. This, in turn, can affect our decision-making. With talent acquisition teams, they often (and unknowingly) fall victim to their cognitive biases to make quicker decisions on who they should and should not hire.

With regard to recruitment, unconscious biases can have severe ramifications on employee happiness, productivity, diversity, and ultimately, a business's success. In fact, American Economic Association found that those with 'white-sounding' names are 50% more likely to receive a call-back for interviews.

You might be thinking, 'not us', but even reputable businesses are subject to bias. Take NASA for example, whose lack of female spacesuits prevented a woman from going on a historic spacewalk while a man took her place instead.

So, how do we beat the bias? The first step is recognising what different types of unconscious biases there are; then we'll get into ways you can curtail them from your recruitment process!

9 Types of Unconscious Bias In Recruitment

Unconscious biases can manifest in many different ways, making them seriously difficult to recognise. For talent acquisition teams, biases can slither in as soon as we read a CV, throughout the interview stage, and when we're selecting a candidate.

Looking inward and challenging our own behaviours helps us comprehend precisely how our biased decisions can impact the trajectory of someone's career and the business's success.

On that note, let's explore different types of unconscious bias in recruitment…

1.     Affinity Bias

Affinity bias is when we favour those who have similar interests or backgrounds to us. This kind of bias reigns supreme in recruitment as businesses look for a 'culture fit'. Not only does this marginalise other candidates, it also deprives an organisation of fresh perspectives, new learning opportunities, and diversity in their teams.

Example: Preferring a candidate simply because they grew up in the same area as you.

2.     Halo Effect

The halo effect is when we allow a single positive quality of a candidate to dictate our overall impression. Usually, this relates to a physical characteristic of a person and tends to benefit applicants from privileged backgrounds, compelling us to unfairly treat specific candidates more favourably than others.

Example: Assuming that someone smartly dressed is bound to work harder than someone in more casual attire.

3.     Horns Effect

You guessed it. The horns effect is the opposite of the halo effect, leading us to form an inaccurate impression of a candidate based on a singular characteristic. The perception of what makes a personal quality negative is usually driven by harmful stereotypes and social conditioning. Candidates from marginalised communities are particularly vulnerable to the horn effect, steering us to treat them extremely unfairly based on a single subjective 'negative' trait.

Example: Judging that a candidate is unintelligent purely because of their accent.

4.     Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias occurs when we cherry-pick people, situations, and information that agrees with what we already believe to be true rather than evaluating candidates objectively. It can reveal itself in different ways, such as actively seeking information that supports our pre-existing beliefs, interpreting data that confirms our ideas, or selectively recalling information to validate our assumptions.

Example: Believing that left-handed candidates are more creative than right-handed candidates.

5.     Attribution Bias

Attribution bias refers to the assumptions we make about people's actions or intentions instead of considering the myriad of complex reasons that could have led to them behaving in a particular way.

Example: Say a candidate has swapped jobs relatively frequently. You automatically assume they're job hopping rather than considering any other reasons that could have led to their recent work pattern.

6.     Conformity Bias

Conformity bias usually occurs when there's already a lack of diversity or opinion in our team. It's when we feel uncomfortable voicing our opinion and instead alter our perceptions to match that of the majority because we feel pressured to fit in. Similarly, throughout the recruitment process, we may unconsciously give more attention to the talent we think the majority will approve of, which creates an unfair hiring practice and poor decisions.

Example: You believe a candidate did well and would be an excellent fit for your team, but other interviewers voice that they didn't like the candidate. To avoid rocking the boat, you shift your opinion to conform with the other interviewers.

7.     Contrast Effect

The contrast effect happens when we compare candidates to one another. Of course, we could argue that's all part of the process, but if we're not careful, it can skew our expectations away from reality making great candidates seem mediocre or poor candidates seem great.

Example: A candidate with an impressive CV has rejected a job offer. Consequently, a different candidate who is qualified for the job and did well in their interview and assessment no longer meets your standards simply by comparison.

8.     Intuition Bias

Intuition bias refers to the instances when we rely too heavily on our gut instincts to help us decide on an applicant. Usually, this occurs when a hiring manager has been recruiting for an extended period of time, and so they rely less on the talent's qualifications and more on their intuition from years of experience.

Example: Thinking that you can better predict an employee's future performance through interviews rather than through factors like education and test scores.

9.     Prejudice and Discrimination

This might be the most straightforward type of bias to understand and identify, usually stemming from stereotypes and pertaining to someone’s gender, ethnicity, sexuality, age, or disability status. In recruitment, prejudice and discrimination happen when we unconsciously believe that a candidate’s ability, knowledge, and skill are directly related to these aspects of their identity.

Sadly, all of these prejudices still exist in society. Most of us can easily recognise overt forms of discrimination; however, if it’s not directed towards us, we might be ignorant to subtle microaggressions and unconscious beliefs and behaviours – something that needs to change. Education and awareness are the first steps to overcoming these types of discrimination within your recruitment process.

Example: You expect a nurse to be female, so you regard a male applicant as inferior even though he is fully qualified for the role.

6 Ways To Limit Biases In Your Recruitment Process

Because biases develop in our psychology in countless different ways, they can end up being behaviours we live with for years unknowingly. Undoing them takes some serious effort, but it's not impossible! While the solution begins with continued learning about the different types of unconscious biases, here are six different ways you can start making changes in your organisation today…

1.     Anonymous Applications

In recruitment, biases can prop up right from the screening process, meaning we can shut down an applicant before we've even gotten to see who they are or what they're capable of.

Removing irrelevant information from applications such as name, date of birth, education history, and personal interests ensures that only the most qualified and suitable candidates make it through the first round of your recruitment process. This way, you eliminate instances of discrimination by giving everyone a fair shot at the opportunity you're advertising.

2.     Diversify Your Interview Panels

A lack of diversity in interviewers only perpetuates the cycle of hiring people who we relate to, look like, or speak like.

Having an eclectic group of qualified team members to conduct your recruitment process can help reduce bias. By doing so, you campaign for different perspectives from the get-go and create a fairer, more inclusive environment for diverse candidates.

3.     Expand On Your Culture, Don't Shrink It

Suppose you've gotten into the rut of always hiring the same type of person. In that case, you could be undermining diversity and inclusion initiatives, which drive trust, commitment, and innovation from employees and ultimately, access to a bigger talent pool of individuals.

Going forward, when interviewing talent, along with their skill set, think about how prospective candidates with unique characteristics and defining differences can add value to your company at large.

4.     Educate Your Team

There's a saying that's always floating around the business world: 'culture begins from the top-down', and in some senses, that's correct. Recognising unconscious bias and educating your team about its long-term effects should encourage the entire business to become more self-aware of their unconscious thoughts and behaviours.

Raising awareness and offering employees the opportunity to learn about their biased opinions without judgement will inspire talent acquisition teams to be more conscious of the questions they're asking and the way they're treating candidates.

5.     Infuse Skill Assessments into Your Process

When it comes to filling a vacant job role, many talent acquisition teams are deprived of time, which sometimes means they lean into their unconscious biases. One of the most valuable ways to make your hiring practice free from unconscious bias is by incorporating skill assessments.

Tailoring these assessments to the role and business needs means you can evaluate candidates' talents and capabilities by gathering objective information on each applicant. This practical step in recruiting helps streamline your process by shortlisting highly skilled professionals.

6.     Use Inclusive Language

Have you ever taken the time to think about the inborn bias in our everyday language? It's around us everywhere we go and can, either intentionally or unintentionally, exclude certain social groups.

Oftentimes, our word choice is habitual and so it takes purposeful action to break the cycle of non-inclusive words and phrases. Listening, learning, growing and understanding is a continuous journey, so you can correct your mistakes, challenge deeply ingrained habits or beliefs, and nurture a real sense of belonging in your business.

By really grasping the impact of your vernacular on your workforce – from initial job ads to lines of questioning in interviews and assessments – you set yourself apart from competitors by being actively and progressively more inclusive.

To say that unconscious biases are totally inescapable is not entirely true – it's all part of our human makeup. Still, equipping your teams with the right tools and processes can significantly reduce bias in your recruitment process, helping your business be more inclusive, diverse, and thriving!

Here at Meet, all of our new starters get trained on unconscious bias during their onboarding process with Meet DNA. To find out more about our Learning and Development function, head over to In Conversation with Claire MacLeod, Head of L&D.

Book in a call with one of the team about your hiring needs.

Meet Recruitment 2022. Meet Recruitment Ltd., Meet Recruitment Inc. and Meet Personalberatung GmbH are all subsidiaries of Meet Group (No. 13556131) a company registered in England and Wales at Irongate House, 22-30 Dukes Place, London, EC3A 7LP.
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