Is my recruitment process biased?

Rich Marr





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Our world is full of bias. It’s like an invisible force that flows through us, within us and all around us, touching almost everything we do. It’s typically not intentional, but our behaviour is riddled with it, and our neutral-seeming business processes are frequently built upon it from the foundations up.

Recruitment bias flows through us
Recruitment bias flows through us (this is 'Yoda' from the much loved documentary 'The Star War')

Causes of recruitment bias

Unfortunately, there are many ways for bias to show itself, at every stage of the recruitment process, here are some examples:

1. Job definition bias

The way you define a role and describe it to candidates can create unintentional bias.

Including hard requirements that aren’t really *hard* requirements can cause problems, men tend to be comfortable applying for jobs when they meet 70% of the requirements, but women tend to apply for jobs where they meet 100%. Similarly requiring specific levels of educational attainment, or looking for specific institutions, assumes that education takes place on a level playing field, which it does not, creating an unintentional bias against people from less advantaged backgrounds.

Requiring a role to be fully co-located or inflexible hours will rule specific groups out, for example those with part time caring responsibilities, working parents, and those for whom travel is difficult

The way you talk about the role and your organisation also affect the outcome. Using too many words like “competitive” or “decisive” can give the impression of a boiler-room culture in which many people (disproportionately women) would rather not work.

2. Sourcing bias

Your choice of where to advertise your role is important too. Different recruitment agencies, job boards and communities have different demographic makeup, so even a simple innocent choice of job board can create systemic bias.

Pick a card, any card
Pick a card, any card. Not that one.

3. Sifting bias

CVs contain many potential triggers for bias. Typical CV sifts are based either on keywords or on overall impressions.

Sometimes hirers look for red flags such as rejecting any CVs that have an unexplained gap in their employment history. These filters are usually based on intuition, and frequently cause bias; people from less well off backgrounds are more frequently required to take time off to care for relatives.

4. Interview bias

The most common type of interview is the unstructured interview, where the interviewer asks an unpredictable mix of questions, either favourites or spontaneously, and sometimes takes unstructured notes about the candidate. These interviews are based on establishing rapport, essentially answering the question “do I want to work with this person”. The problem is that this is driven largely by rapport, which is an irrational and naturally biased process. Human beings tend to establish rapport more easily with people who are like themselves.

Problems still exist in structured interviews, but having a framework of questions and a clear marking scheme enables interviewers to remain focused and keep consistent, as well as helping them avoid relying on rapport.

Interview bias is a problem
Mansplaining is not the answer

5. Shortlist bias

A recent study showed that if you only have one woman on a four-person shortlist she has effectively no chance of getting the job… whereas if you have two men and two women the numbers are closer to 50/50 that you’ll hire a woman.

This clear gap in rationality is a good reason why shortlists should be representative. If the best candidate is a man then he would still be hired from a representative shortlist, but if the best candidate is a woman then using a representative shortlist makes a substantial difference to her chances… and hence improves employers chances of hiring the best candidate.

Similar effects should be expected in other dimensions of diversity, so if you use shortlists as a tool, try to guard against those irrational behaviours… for example when you show decision makers the shortlist you could have it next to previous shortlists, reducing the effect of “one of these things is not like the others”.

6. Onboarding bias

Once you’ve made your hire there’s still a way to go before they’re a productive member of your team.

An advantage of hiring within your network is that incoming hires arrive with a halo, additionally they have a built-in support network because they already know somebody who can help them avoid pitfalls, politics, etc. When you hire someone who’s dissimilar to your existing team those things can be harder to achieve, and at the same time there’s a danger your team may see them as a “diversity hire” who didn’t qualify on merit. This can cause enough friction within teams to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

To avoid that, it’s important that your team understand the way hiring decisions are made. Ideally they should be involved at all stages, and deeply understand (and be able to examine) how candidates are scored. If you do that, all hires will arrive with a halo and be given a fair shot by your team.

Look out for onboarding bias
Come on in, the water's lovely

So what now? How can we achieve diverse recruitment?

Unbiased hiring is a journey, not a destination, so rather than focusing on how to hire you need to focus on how to improve. To do that I’d recommend three things:

1. Measure everything

To detect and diagnose problems in your hiring process you need to know protected data from the people in your hiring funnel and how they perform as they progress through your hiring process. To assess the performance of the mouth of your funnel you also need to find out the demographic makeup of the wider talent market as a whole. If you want to truly perfect your hiring, you also need to be able to match up every point in your process with who got hired and how well they performed once they were in the role.

Literally measure everything. Well not literally.

2. Adopt blind recruitment techniques where possible

Human bias is ubiquitous, and training is expensive (and has mixed results at best) so hiring ‘blind’ is a useful technique. There are many ways to approach it, all the way from simply scrubbing out names from CVs, to operating a blinded and replicated skill-based assessment like we do at Applied . The key is to maximise human judgement by helping it focus on what’s important, and getting anything that’s not important out of the way. Read our blog on What is Blind Hiring? to learn more about this.

3. Evaluate candidates on the actual work they’ll be doing

How well someone did in school, or whether you respect the university they went to, are very weakly correlated with how well they’re likely to do once they’re hired (Schmidt/Hunter 1998,2016)… more predictive assessment techniques tend to more closely resemble the actual day to day work they’ll do on the job.

What next?

Read our follow up blog on How do I remove bias from my recruitment process? to learn what to do next. Also check out our resource centre for a whole bunch of guides and best practices on de-biasing your recruitment, and if you’re really keen check out our infographic of the 20 most common biases that creep into recruitment.