What Is Unconscious Bias And How Can We Prevent It?

Published by:
Kieran Seymour
July 5, 2019
min read

Debiased Hiring Bundle

Whether we’re aware of it or not, we make instant judgments about the people around us every single day. It’s called unconscious bias, and while it may seem like an ordinary part of the human experience, it’s actually extremely invasive and damaging to the hiring process. Despite its natural presence, organizations can in fact learn how to avoid unconscious bias and savor all of the benefits. 

What benefits, you ask? A more diverse workforce, more qualified interviewees, reduced time spent on the hiring process, lower churn rate and an improved candidate experience, to name a few. 

Avoiding unconscious biases in the workplace isn’t just an essential step in a fair workforce; the gains waiting for companies are written on the wall (and in the research). 

However, it’s not enough to simply be aware of unconscious bias and have a sturdy resolve to minimize it in your organization. A company with intentions that will manifest into reality and positive change will require a strategy to reduce bias. 

Awareness, personal vigilance and attentiveness aren’t solutions to unconscious bias. The real solutions are actually simpler to implement and manage.  

Monolithic as it may sound, the path forward is paved with research, resources and a host of auxiliary benefits that will leave you feeling enthused to reduce bias in your organization.

Introduction to unconscious bias

In daily life, we all routinely cross paths with a steady cadence of strangers, whether it’s at work, on public transit or even just in the grocery store. What assumptions do we make about the people around us? 

What judgments do we make based on someone’s weight? Their hair? Perhaps their age? What about their ethnicity? 

Attempting to answer these questions and reflecting on your assumptions can make many people uncomfortable. But whatever your answers may be, the reality is that we all make these judgments, whether we confront them or not. 

This phenomenon is known as unconscious bias.

While unconscious bias is natural and very much part of our psychological makeup, it hinders our attempts to make fair, impartial decisions. 

This makes it impossible to remove unconscious biases from our daily human experience, but it IS possible to remove them from the hiring process. 

Before we get into the effects and remedies, let’s look a little closer at what unconscious bias truly is and how it (preventably) manifests in the workforce. 

What you think you know about unconscious bias in the workplace

Gender equality, racial diversity, demographic makeup - are these all coming to mind while thinking about unconscious bias in the workplace? 

That list is a good place to start, but that list is only a small representation of the biases that lead to interviewing and ultimately hiring the wrong people. 

Unconscious bias is much wider than just diversity and inclusion; the wingspan of inclusive hiring reaches into areas that most people, even the most caring hiring managers, often don’t realize. 

After all, would you collate age discrimination with reviewing applications while distracted? Of course not; yet they both earnestly impact your ability to judge a candidate. 

It may surprise you to learn that each of these seemingly trivial factors informs who you hire: 

  • Order of applicants reviewed 
  • Time of day of an interview 
  • Applicant’s overlap with your own life path 

Now that the imperative, urgent need to address unconscious bias in the hiring process is written on the wall, let’s dig deeper into what’s at the core of these dangerous influences. 

What is unconscious bias really?

Unconscious bias is the term used to describe certain prejudices that we may be unaware of, and therefore they can feel out of our direct control. Sometimes also referred to as implicit bias, unconscious bias often stems from stereotypes that arise from our backgrounds, cultures, and personal experiences.

Research suggests that bias (either implicit or explicit) is a natural behavior among all people. In our day-to-day lives, we naturally categorize people using easily observable characteristics such as gender, age, ethnicity, and weight, to name a few.  

After all, think of your last experience traveling and going through customs: did you not weigh up which agent looked most likely to let you through without a hassle? What about impatiently choosing the fastest-looking cashier at the grocery store? 

We act on our unconscious assumptions constantly. 

It doesn’t stop at physical attributes either; other factors such as education, sexual orientation, accent and social status all influence these biases, too. 

Unconscious bias in human behavior is inescapable, but it can and must be subverted in the hiring process. It may sound radical, but it’s actually not a new concept at all. 

Organizations have been trying to eliminate racial discrimination and ageism from their hiring processes for years, but they’ve often been trying to fix only one part of a complex problem. 

No matter how unbiased we attempt to be, everyone has involuntary opinions about other people. These biases can be positive but, more often than not, are negative. 

These biases can (and do) have detrimental impacts on every aspect of society, not least in the workplace.

Types of unconscious bias‍

Were you surprised by the time of day bias or familiarity bias? Bias is often imperceivable to the average person. To combat unconscious bias at work, you first have to understand the different forms. 

CV review biases

1. Perception bias

Perception bias happens when we make assumptions about people based on stereotypes, cultural beliefs or any other unconfirmed information we have about a person. 

How stereotypes affect how we see others (chart)

While it’s impossible to ever be fully objective about other people, perception bias distorts your perception of a stranger from the get-go, making any attempt at objectivity futile. 

An example of perception bias in the workplace is hiring a woman instead of a man for a caretaking role in a nursing home, assuming more warmth would come from the female candidate. 

One tool to avoid perception bias when hiring is “blinding” applicants, also known as anonymous hiring. This removes weak indicators of fit that often lead to bias, such as name, appearance and education. 

2. Affinity bias

Affinity bias occurs when we feel as though we have a natural connection with people who are similar to us. This natural connection naturally impairs our judgment of their skills, merits and values. 

This type of bias in hiring is so commonplace that candidates will try to intentionally trigger it. It’s the reason so many people include “interests” sections on their resumes. They mention their fraternity name, their volunteer work coaching football and their passion for knitting in hopes that it will resonate and connect with a member of the hiring team. 

An example of affinity bias in the recruiting process is hiring someone because they’re a good “culture fit,” with no evidence of superior skills over other candidates. It’s extremely likely that this hired candidate reminds the hiring team of themselves or the people already on their team, leading to a more homogeneous workplace. 

Culture fit vs job performance (chart)

To combat affinity bias in the workplace, adhere to structured interviews and use unified scoring metrics. Instead of an interview team leaving a set of interviews with a “feeling” about who is the best candidate, they leave with score sheets and data based on each aspect of the role the candidate is seeking. 

3. Halo effect

The halo effect is a type of bias where we project positive qualities onto people without actually confirming them. This may be based on signifiers such as their education, how they speak or the way they dress. The inverse of this type of bias is called the horns effect. 

The term was coined by psychologist Edward Thorndike when he found that ‘conventionally attractive’ people have a likelihood of being perceived as successful and competent. This leads to positive characteristics being overdrawn, as well negative characteristics overlooked. 

Halo effect example

An example of the halo effect in an interview is a candidate making a clever joke in the interview, and then automatically being pegged as quick, intelligent and attentive.  

One tool to avoid the halo effect in hiring is to involve more than one person at every stage of the recruitment process. This eliminates one team member from overdrawing conclusions and letting their unconscious biases solely make decisions.

4. Confirmation bias

We tend to try and confirm our own opinions and pre-existing ideas about a particular group of people. This phenomenon is labeled as confirmation bias. 

An example of confirmation bias in the interview process is asking spontaneous questions in the interview. If an interviewee is struggling but seen as a strong fit, an interviewer may feel inclined to ask easier questions to help them recover. Or, opposingly, the interviewer may see this person as unqualified and conclude the interview with fewer questions altogether than other candidates. 

One way to avoid confirmation bias in the interviews is using a rubric of predetermined questions for every interview. Just as the rubric decreases affinity bias, it also reduces emotional and spur-of-the-moment questions from being asked, giving every interviewee the same playing field. 

Unconscious bias in the workplace

Discriminatory behaviors and inequality in the workplace often stem from unconscious biases. Even the gender pay gap can be attributed to biases employers harbor towards current and potential female employees. 

While unconscious bias is not the only factor contributing to these social, economical and moral issues, it’s arguably the most difficult to address.

Unconscious bias is by its very nature invisible and unintentional. People are unaware that they are making unfair judgments or stereotyping the people they encounter. Similarly, these judgments result in quick mental decisions that are not even spoken, let alone physically recorded and assessed. 

So how do you stop something that you can’t see someone doing or saying, especially when that person isn’t aware that they’re doing anything wrong themselves? 

Organizations must analyze exactly where unconscious bias starts: in their recruiting and interviewing processes. 

How to avoid unconscious bias in recruiting

Working to remove unconscious bias from your workplace starts with recruiting. It may feel more natural to assume that bias doesn’t rear its head until a specific candidacy is being addressed, but research has proven that’s untrue. 

Bias in the recruiting process actually begins at the first draft of a job description. From coded language to muddied requirements and the type of qualifications being demanded, most companies are missing out on candidates from the inception of the recruiting process because many won’t even apply. 

Despite best efforts, the standard recruitment process is loaded with bias landmines that will inevitably result in fewer applicants and a more homogenous workforce unless they’re explicitly removed. 

Attentive hiring managers will be well aware of the statistics surrounding difficult-to-pronounce names (also known as name bias), or the lean towards attractive candidates (also known as beauty bias), but where does it all start? 

Much of the unconscious bias in recruiting happens in your job description and your requirements. 

Let us help you de-bias your job descriptions and requirements: request a demo today

Once a fair and unbiased job description is decided upon, the interview process much likewise is equalized. 

'Why didn't you apply for the job?' survey results (chart)

How to avoid unconscious bias in interviewing

While this is a complex process with no push-button solutions, there are tangible, research-backed steps that you can take to reduce unconscious bias in interviewing. 

We talked about many of these steps already while looking at the tools to combat the most common forms of unconscious bias in hiring, such as…  

“Blinding” and removing many standard components of the application. In some cases, this also trickles down to removing requirements such as a degree and relevant experience, and instead focuses on the skills being demanded by the position. 

Utilizing a rubric for analyzing work samples and response to interview questions. Instead of interviewing candidates and reflecting on who you liked the most, the interviewing team turns to the data. How did every candidate score across a predetermined set of criteria? 

Using a team of interviewers at every step of the process. The rubric and other debiasing tools should be implemented by multiple members of the hiring team during the stages of work sample review as well as interviews. 

Predictive validity of assessment methods (chart)

Every step of unbiasing taken in the recruiting and interviewing process benefits the candidates, and it also produces more qualified, better-screened and perfectly suited candidates for your open positions. See what other steps your organization could take by requesting a demo of Applied today

Unconscious bias in the workplace conclusion

If unconscious bias is a human condition and can never be eliminated from human behavior, can you honestly expect it to be eliminated from the workplace and hiring process? 

The answer is yes. You can’t standardize human thoughts, but you can standardize the process and environment in which hiring decisions are made. 

From the first draft of the job description to making a candidate an offer, a recruiter and interview committee make countless decisions that, in the traditional setting, have all been affected by bias. 

Plus, once bias is removed from your hiring process, companies enjoy better-suited new hires, less churn and knowing that they’re a part of an essential, positive change in society. 

We know what questions to ask, what language to remove and what steps to take. Let us walk you down the path of research so you can put an outdated, ineffective hiring system to rest. 

Applied is the essential platform for debiased hiring. Purpose-built to make hiring empirical and ethical, our hiring platform uses anonymized applications and skill-based assessments to identify talent that would otherwise have been overlooked.

Push back against conventional hiring wisdom with a smarter solution: book in a demo