Bringing unconscious bias into the light.
Did you know that our brains make hundreds of decisions without us even noticing? Those micro-decisions are a key part of the erratic estimation that trap our mindset into unconscious bias.
Unfortunately, this vital feature of our mind plays a major part when sourcing resumes, interviewing candidates and making hiring decisions. The problem is, those decisions are very often not in our favor.
I have more than 10 years of experience leading recruitment teams in tech and I helped organizations scale in San Francisco, London and APAC. During these years I fought one of the biggest enemies of good recruitment — unconscious bias.
Research on unconscious bias in the workplace
Wikipedia says, ‘bias is disproportionate weight in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair’. As you can tell, this is a major issue when applied to the workplace.
Bias in product development
Think about a male product owner looking at the roadmap only from his own perspective. That’s what happened in the 60’s when crash tests were always done with dummies that were made to be exactly the same weight and height as the average male driver at the time.
This meant all safety features of the car including seatbelts were designed to be efficient, but only for men. Not for women.
Finally in 2011 laws changed, and since then, all manufacturers are required to also test safety features such as airbags and seatbelts for women’s average size and weight.
Tech giants & gender bias
Tech giants have also been accused of gender bias. Something that shouldn’t be a surprise as most of them struggle year after year to increase the number of women within their engineering teams.
The Verge reported that Apple was able to check incredible things with their ‘Health Kit’ but failed to add a simple feature to help women keep track of their period.
Tech giants & racial bias
But unconscious bias is not limited to gender. In 2015, Google designed a facial recognition feature within Google photos that identified black faces as ‘gorillas’. Not to mention the many instances when the Google search team had to jump into making changes to the autocomplete search function as it would show content that reinforced gender stereotypes or racist suggestions for your search.
As you can see, even the top tech companies in the world are affected by unconscious bias in some form or another and our recruitment process is not an exception.
Interesting research on bias
There has been plenty of research done on the matter and most studies come back with astonishing insights.
- First impressions: In ‘First Impressions’ by Monica Harris and Christopher Garris found that we form our decision in the first few minutes of an interview. This means your interviews will be fatally flawed if your process isn’t stronger than your interviewer bias.
- Names & race: A study in the United States by Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan in 2004 revealed that there are statistically significant differences in the number of callbacks each resume received based on whether the name sounded white or African American.
- Bias against mothers: Gender bias has also been proven by various studies to be extremely present in our recruitment process. A great example is this study that found that mothers who state on their resumes that they are involved in a parent/teacher association (PTA) are 79% less likely to be hired.
The 5 different types of unconscious bias I’ve found to be most common in the recruitment process throughout my career:
1 - Confirmation bias is one of the most common biases I have come across during the recruitment process. Think about that hiring manager that really needs to fill that gap in the team. The process will often go like this:
- The team is lagging behind on their project and needs an extra pair of hands to be able to hit their quarterly goal.
- The manager was impressed with the candidate’s resume and wants to have an interview with the candidate.
- Confirmation bias will kick in and drive our manager to reinforce their positive prior beliefs during their conversation while being a lot less vigilant on the potential negatives that might come up during the interview.
I’ve seen people of all kinds of seniority falling into this trap (me included!) in different levels of the recruitment process. From resume sourcing, to face-to-face interviews, and even in final decision making.
2 - Similarity bias is the tendency to like people similar to us. This unconscious bias comes from the time when humans would gather around tribes and finding yourself amongst people from a different tribe would mean you’re in great danger.
Unfortunately, similarity bias has a big impact on our diversity hiring as it will prevent us from hiring people from other:
- other minority groups,
- or even different world views.
Similarity bias is one of the most common types of biases and recruiters and hiring managers should be extremely vigilant, otherwise the company will end up with a highly homogenous team.
3 - Attribution bias is the wrongly perceived ability (we think we have) to know what’s behind someone’s motives and actions.
You can see very clearly such bias when recruiters or hiring managers decide not to move forward with a candidate because their last position was held for a few months, therefore assuming this person is in some way problematic or lacking the commitment we’re looking for our own team.
Attribution bias also gives us the impression that other people’s actions are always based in their internal mindset or personality, while ours are mostly based in external factors.
4 - The halo or horn effect is based on the concept of a saint’s halo, where we identify saints on religious art pieces by adding a halo around the figure to signal it’s holiness.
I have come across this type of bias many times in the workplace where it’s been demonstrated in several research studies that attractive and tall individuals are more likely to be hired and promoted.
You can also apply the 'halo effect' to people who come from strong companies.
Recruiters and hiring managers are much more likely to consider a candidate that comes from a well known company rather than a candidate with the same experience but coming from a lesser known organization.
5 - Status quo bias refers to the inherent tendency we have to prefer the current state of affairs rather than going through change.
This type of bias takes a big toll on teams when we think of recruitment as if our hiring needs were buckets of skills. Instead, we should build our teams looking for people with horizontal skills that can have an impact across groups.
What are the negative effects of unconscious bias for companies and teams?
These are some of the most common negative effects of bias I've seen in teams:
- Lack of diversity: The most obvious problem with bias in the hiring process is the high probability of building a team with an important lack of diversity.
- Non-inclusive products: Companies with such a lack of representation in gender, race or sexual orientation will most likely build non-inclusive products which ultimately will affect the business bottom line.
- Lack of innovation: Building a non-diverse team also means your company will become a lot more homogeneous, with a status quo mindset, and will be a lot less likely to take risks and push the boundaries in innovation.
- Failure to attract top talent: Furthermore the less diverse the team, the less likely you will be able to attract people from diverse backgrounds. This creates a vicious circle from which it will be even harder to escape.
- Issues with problem solving: But diversity is not only about gender, ethnicity, age or sexual orientation. Recently other concepts such as cognitive diversity are rising in the workplace claiming the importance for businesses to hire people who have different perspectives or information processing styles. Research also points to the fact that highly cognitive diverse teams have a strong correlation with high performance in problem solving.
During my career, I helped tech companies grow from seed stage to hundreds of people and I always advise founders on building a bias-free (or as close as possible) recruitment process, especially at the very beginning of their scaling journey.
Below, I will outline the framework I’ve used to help companies fight bias while rapidly scaling from 10 to over 400+ team members.
The 7-step framework I use to fight unconscious bias in the hiring process
1 - Build awareness around unconscious bias in hiring.
The bigger the team, the more important it is to talk frequently about your vision to make sure everyone is on the same page. The same applies to unconscious bias in the organization.
Most hiring managers I have encountered in my career started doing interviews without any type of training, experience or documentation. Some basic questions to identify ‘good’ candidates and off you go!
A very key part of my success in scaling teams is to speak up about unconscious bias and the damage it can make to a growing organization. Documenting research and keeping regular training for team members who will be running interviews is also critical to minimize unconscious bias in the recruitment process.
2 - Set diversity goals and include them in your leadership team performance.
Companies need goals so team members can rally around them, and work together to figure out how to achieve them.
Life at any tech company I’ve ever worked for is hard. From quarter to quarter trying to hit production goals and new features. Diversity comes very low on the priority list, and typically no one keeps track of it except for the ‘People’ team, who will occasionally peek at the numbers on the HR system.
I have come across this problem many times. The solution is simple: Set a diversity goal for the year and hold your hiring managers and recruitment team accountable.
When I’ve established diversity goals with founders in the past, the whole dynamic changed and removing bias was top-of-the-list for everyone involved in hiring, not just the recruitment teams.
3 - Standardize your recruitment process.
If you are not asking the same questions to all candidates, how do you know how they compare to each other?
That was the question I asked a challenging hiring manager that refused to use a script for interviews claiming that he preferred to go with the flow on interviews and get to know people in a more ‘real’ way. Yes, having a script doesn’t feel like a natural conversation but it is a necessary evil when it comes to reducing our unconscious bias.
Equally important is to have a scoring card framework to allow interviewers to provide a numerical result to the interview. For this, I always strive to distill the main qualities we are looking for each position in a brainstorm session with the team. Then, we work to build specific questions to find out how the candidate measures against the skills you actually need them to have.
Every step of the interview should measure one or more skills (including soft skills) and keep consistency across all candidates.
4 - Assess candidates through blind skills challenges and motivational assessments.
Going through hundreds of resumes can be very tiring, especially when your company is desirable and recruiters get hundreds of applications per day.
Under such circumstances is when unconscious bias kicks in the hardest and your team suffers from a high number of false positives and even worse; false negatives.
To avoid this, you can have the candidates take an assessment prior to the recruiter interview so you can filter the excellent from the crowd faster, but also much more fairly.
During my time at foodpanda, we implemented a testing tool for software engineers that not only helped the team automate and filter the best coders but also got rid of the human bias that can damage your bottom line at the beginning of the process.
5 - Make hiring decisions by diverse committees.
Have you ever wondered how you are going to achieve great diversity if your hiring managers are not a diverse team themselves?
That was what I was wondering during my time working for a scale-up company recently. The solution is very simple but hard to implement – make hiring decisions strictly by committee.
This one is hard because managers are mostly used to make the final call on hiring for their teams. When trying to implement a hiring committee, I encountered a few resistances along the way, but finally created a plan and the result surprised many in the team.
Hiring managers felt a lot more supported when making decisions and highly valued having people from other teams engaged in their recruitment efforts. Teams also saw great outcomes as a result.
As many people were involved in the decision, colleagues across teams felt responsible to make the new joinee fit flawlessly and help them succeed. The key is to make sure your hiring decision committee comes from diverse backgrounds and tenure, and have the final word when it comes to hiring. No exceptions.
6 - Blind all your inbound resumes.
Many companies are adopting this incredibly simple approach to resume screening. As many research shows, biases from all kinds get in the way of recruiters when reviewing resumes.
To tackle this problem, many applicant tracking systems (ATS) are adding new features that blind resumes names helping the recruiter to focus on the most relevant information available.
I adapted this in the past in my teams and we saw an increase of 17% more female engineers passing the second stage of interviews. An incredible gain for such a small change in the process.
7 - Reword your job descriptions.
It is very well known that the words we choose have an incredible impact on people at the other end of the communication string.
This is remarkably important when we’re trying to excite a potential candidate through one of our job descriptions.
Words such as ‘collaborative’, ‘committed’ and ‘honest’ draw more women into applying while ‘competitive’, ‘driven’ or ‘outspoken’ are more likely to attract male applicants.
I’ve seen significant increases in diverse applicants only by taking a look at our job descriptions and rewording some concepts to make our posting a lot more inclusive. Tools such as Textio and Gender decoder help make this task as simple as copy-paste.
My best advice on how to overcome unconscious bias:
Being biased is part of human nature. Having a bias-free recruitment process will be difficult as long as we rely on people to hire our teams.
Strive instead to reduce unconscious bias as much as possible. Create awareness on why this is important for your company and why being fair and inclusive can help your team bring out the best in themselves and achieve greater goals.
Build a strong recruitment process that helps hiring managers make the right choices and get more people involved in recruiting decisions. Once you make it a priority, the benefits of reducing unconscious bias in recruitment will be much more profound than you realize.
Luciano Marucco is a recruitment & HR expert with over 10 years experience scaling hyper-growth tech companies around the globe, including Tray.io, Toaster and Foodpanda. He's driven by data and focused on creating innovative strategies to elevate teams through culture and HR.