You’ve likely heard about bias and, more pertinent to hiring, unconscious or implicit bias.
You’ll also likely know that biases can be bad because they hamper our decision making and cause us to make hiring decisions that are wrong for both the organisation and the candidate.
Bias takes many forms and, spoiler, alert, we're all biased in some way. Here I’ll take you through the different types of bias and how to minimise bias in your hiring process.
Let’s dive in.
What is bias exactly?
Bias means holding beliefs about an individual or group based on preconceived notions (stereotypes). Unconscious bias is when we hold these associations outside of conscious awareness and control. It’s perhaps why you think you like a specific candidate more than another, even though they don’t have anywhere near the right qualifications.
For the purposes of this article, I’m going to tackle unconscious bias, also known as implicit bias, as I would like to assume that anyone reading this is already attempting to dampen their conscious biases (or explicit bias) when it comes to hiring and is attempting to be impartial.
If you aren’t then this article can still help you start, but there is a lot more work you need than someone who is looking to counteract their subconscious. Being consciously biased means someone is intentionally discriminatory and that requires additional education, exposure to stereotype-busting situations and, more importantly, the will to change.
Focusing on unconscious bias, which is likely the more common of the two, I have some bad news. You cannot get rid of your unconscious bias! It’s something we’re all born with—an evolutionary trait to help us survive.
For example, research found that 3-month-old babies raised mainly by women have a strong preference for women over men. But, of course, these shortcuts we make are only guidelines, they change as we get older, and they’re far from always right.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however! You can still combat your unconscious biases and look to recognise when they’re at play. These are the techniques I will go over in this piece.
You’ve already taken the first step by recognising that unconscious bias happens and bringing it to the forefront of your mind that you would like to take corrective action.
Types of unconscious bias and how they present themselves
In order to combat your biases, you first have to learn to recognise the different types of bias and the likely reasons they occur.
Here I’ll outline a few of the more common hiring biases and how they present themselves in a scenario.
This one seems quite simple: having more or less favourable views about an individual based on their gender. But, depending on the culture, it can be incredibly difficult to uproot.
Even if people consciously say they want to increase the gender diversity of their team, they can still exhibit gender bias in an interview process. This can affect both genders, but it’s more commonly seen as bias against females.
For example, in Western Europe and North America, there has been a gender bias that women are not great at maths. In the UK, for example, in girls-only schools, they used to replace maths and sciences with home economics.
In 2022 a (female) member of the government had the audacity to say that “girls don’t like hard math problems”. Similarly, research by New York University found that men are more likely to be seen as “brilliant” in subjects like science and technology.
Meanwhile, in places like Iran, Egypt, and most countries in Eastern Europe (ex-socialist countries especially) the gap is nowhere near as severe and, in some places, is reversed!
This shows that these are culturally held beliefs, and it’s not like women are inherently worse in maths and science (the irony being that the first people to work with computers were all women).
This bias is based on someone’s appearance and, again, it can strike all genders and ethnicities.
It means that the assessment is not based on professional skills, but on appearance alone, and that is something incredibly subjective.
It’s quite well known that, in certain high fashion brands, you have to be “conventionally” attractive to get hired, no matter what the role is.
Even wearing the wrong nail polish at an interview (or not wearing any at all) can mean you don’t get the role, regardless of your expertise. I remember when I worked in fashion one of my colleagues had to instruct candidates on things like this.
This is why I’m wary when the hiring manager makes statements like “this person will be a good face for our brand” or “they fit our aesthetic and the impression we’re going for”.
These are not-so-subtle hints that their bias is showing, especially so if they make a snap decision or they’re hiring someone with no discernable skills or experience.
This is commonly seen as the perception that older employees aren’t as capable as younger ones, but I’ve seen the reverse too.
Age is not an indicator of skill or talent, so it means you may be missing out on an incredibly talented young person, or a skilled and seasoned older employee, because you’re not paying attention to the correct things—their skills and expertise.
More recently, I’ve seen this veiled in the response “I’m not sure if they’re dynamic enough for us”.
This is something often heard in early-stage start-ups, where the average age tends to be lower, and they now need to hire the “adults in the room” with the experience of being where the startup is going.
However, a lot these companies also believe that theirs is the most hard-working and dynamic environment and someone who is perhaps a fair bit older will not be suitable.
That is classic ageism because there is likely no concrete evidence the person won’t work as hard as someone who just graduated—if anything they can do more in less time.
This means the tendency to explain a person’s behaviour to their character rather than a situational factor. The earliest this can occur is during a CV review where a whole host of assumptions can be made at only a glance.
It’s super common in interviews as well, where every tiny twitch and glitch may be interpreted as a failure on the candidate’s part—especially in the age of Zoom interviewing.
For example, if the candidate is late by 5 mins, it’s likely the hiring manager assumes they’re just not great at time management, regardless of the explanation.
I myself have been in a situation where I was that candidate, and the reason I was late was because a woman had passed out on the bus and I was administering first aid to her.
I had factored in to be 20 mins earlier to the interview but, by the time the ambulance came, I was 5 mins late.
To an interviewer who would let their attribution bias colour their opinion of me, I am someone who is just lazy or can’t manage their time.
To an interested interviewer, who is willing to overcome their bias by asking me what happened and conducting the rest of the interview in good faith, I would be given the chance to explain what happened (and, of course, they can see that I am indeed first aid trained as it’s on my CV).
This is a bit of a catch-all for all the mental shortcuts you may take during an interview. For example, someone with visible tattoos cannot be a good CFO but they can make a great designer because they “must” be creative.
Sounds silly, but it can happen and I’ve seen it happen! Someone doesn’t like a person with a certain name because their ex has that name, or they said something that, according to a BuzzFeed article, sociopaths say.
These mental leaps were useful when we were surviving as early humans, but the task of hiring and employing someone is of higher complexity and therefore requires more than just the survival instinct to kick in.
Likely the most common bias in a hiring setting. This is when you make a snap decision (it could be one of the other biases at play) and you spend the rest of the time in the hiring process trying to confirm this bias as true.
If we take Ageism as an example, I once witnessed a hiring manager assume that a candidate who was a bit older was not “dynamic enough” and so spent the interview talking about how “hardcore” and “fast-paced” the environment is and how it would require so much from the person in the role.
It was stressed so much that candidate actually stoped and asked, “Well won’t there be any support at all?”. As a side note, none of this emphasis was present with other candidates who were markedly younger.
We still ended up hiring the more experiences candidate, but it didn’t end up working out because the bias continued to permeate the relationship even after the hire. In the end, they were let go because “They never turned out to be dynamic enough”, even though their performance on paper was great!
Halo effect/Horn effect
This is where you overly focus on the positive (for the halo effect) or negative aspects (for the horn effect) of a candidate—or at least what you perceive to be the positive or negative qualities.
This can cause us to not fully investigate the candidate’s background, disregard red flags/see everything as a red flag, or outright dismiss a candidate.
I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve heard “Oh the candidate is ex-Google, ex-Microsoft, or ex-Apple, they must be good”. Must they?
For example, when I was at Twitch we were looking for advertising salespeople. Every single candidate who applied from Google at the individual contributor level failed because they had no idea how to sell.
Google doesn't need to sell ads—everyone else is trying to chisel from the Google ad dollar—so they don’t develop those consultative sales skills that were required for the role.
This is why you interview and investigate because, on the other hand, you may also get that one amazing salesperson who just happens to be at Google, so you don’t want to assume either way!
This is a very peculiar type of bias because often it’s a bias based on the non-existent.
The classic example is when a hiring manager has a very clear picture of who needs to be in this role, and no one other than someone who matches this picture will do (sounds like some of your friends dating, right?).
There could be hundreds of other candidates who match and can do the role fantastically, but the hiring manager is set on some superficial qualities.
For example, when a hiring manager came to me with a job description that had 15 bullet points under the requirements, it was time to investigate.
When I started questioning, it became obvious that they had an expectation of not just the candidate’s skills but their background, expertise, and attitude (heck I’m surprised they aren’t specifying eye colour at this point).
As an example, why would it matter that a senior candidate with 15 years of experience went to Oxford or Cambridge? At this point in their career it’s highly irrelevant, but that was the expectation anchor that the hiring manager was operating with.
As a general rule, aim to whittle them down to ~5 requirements so people know what you’re really looking for and value in a candidate.
Affinity bias (Similarity bias)
This is based on something you have in common with a candidate—maybe you went to the same school or both like a certain kind of music.
This can establish a ground of familiarity with the candidate, which can be great, but it should not be the only thing that informs your decision.
Often I’ve seen this played out with hiring managers who hire a younger version of themselves e.g. someone with a familiar career path or someone who worked at a company they worked in (especially common in management consultants from what I’ve personally witnessed—a bit of a bias of my own!).
In practice, this results in interviews with practically no assessment of skills and just reminiscing on common experiences. Remember, you’re not hiring a friend, so vet the person properly.
Conformity bias / Authority Bias
This is where you may feel pressured to align your opinions to what the group or a person in an authority position thinks.
I make sure to highlight this to both people who will interview in a panel and the hiring managers themselves so that they don’t try to influence the opinions of anyone.
I’ll go over how to minimise conformity practically below, but making people aware of groupthink is often powerful.
Just because the hiring manager favours someone doesn’t mean they’re red-flag-free or the absolute best candidate. The hiring manager may be falling into a type of bias themselves, and by following their authority you’re playing to that bias too.
A very illustrative example of this is when I insisted that this one specific interviewing panel has a woman in it (I always do anyway, but call it spidey senses for this one).
Lo and behold, a candidate who received four “strong yeses” from the men in the panel received a “no” from the female interviewer.
Turns out the candidate was very condescending and patronising to her in the interview, even though she would have been a peer to them.
I was the moderator for the panel discussion post-interview, and I could see that she was a bit shaken by the fact that she was the only “no” vote, but I encouraged her to stay strong and say what her true experience was.
Turns out we were right to listen to her because when I spoke to the candidate they were incredibly patronising towards me as well!
Oftentimes you may be inclined to trust your gut when making decisions. Hiring should not be one of them. It may be something you listen to, and look to investigate in an interview setting with more in-depth questions, but it should never be the deciding factor.
Things to look out for are when someone says “I don’t know I just didn’t feel this candidate is the right fit” without being able to substantiate why. This often means that they only have a gut feeling, and they didn’t go and find the evidence to prove it either way, so they’re letting that vague notion of a gut feeling drive their whole decision.
I often see this in leaders who think they have a lot of experience (mixing here with confidence bias), so they never run a structured process.
Contrary to popular belief, the most perceptive hiring managers I’ve worked with conduct incredibly disciplined and structured interviews, so experience doesn’t make you more freeform.
A quote I’ve heard against this is “A structured process impedes my ability to get a feel for the candidate”. I’ll go over why that is troubling in the below section about why structured methods are great for reducing bias.
In response to that statement, my own gut feeling was telling me that they only go off of intuition—and I made sure to investigate and ask further questions, trying to get to the bottom of why they felt that way.
Turns out they couldn’t articulate it in any way other than “Well I just know”. If that isn’t classic intuition, I don’t know what is.
Quite predictably that hiring manager was really hit-and-miss with their hiring, sometimes lucking out and others really missing the mark on the people they hired.
Zero Risk bias
This is a less talked about bias in hiring, but one I have seen happen so often that I’m surprised I haven’t seen it in the top biases in bias training.
Zero risk bias is the tendency to overcorrect on the risk of any hire by trying to reduce the risk of hiring the wrong person to zero.
How this manifests in reality is an endless interviewing process, inability to make a decision, and additional assessments that get added last minute.
This could be a sign of an inexperienced hiring manager but, equally, someone who is so afraid to make a decision that they would rather get a decision by committee.
If you see a company of a few hundred people plus where the CEO boasts of meeting every single person no matter how junior, this could be an indicator that the CEO has the ultimate hiring decision.
The hiring managers underneath aren’t able to make a decision and they’re looking to decrease every hiring risk to zero, basically by passing the buck.
Not to mention that often there is time pressure to hire, so combining that with the aim to reduce risk to zero could invite mental shortcuts and biases of other kinds too!
The reality is no hire is ever zero risk. You can try to reduce the risk by interviewing and assessing appropriately for the role, the rest you have to leave to things like good leadership and performance management.
Culture Fit Bias
Something that might surprise you to consider as a bias, because it’s often seen as a critical part of the hiring process, is having a very narrow definition of a culture fit.
I’m always wary when a hiring manager tells me that a qualified candidate will not be a culture fit but, when pressed, is unable to substantiate why.
The way I train people is to focus on behavioural fit i.e. how someone performs their jobs and their attitude towards work.
For example, if someone is an introvert or extrovert can be part of a culture fit assessment, but both introverts and extroverts can be great team players—which is where your focus needs to be. That is the behavioural fit.
Often, company culture can boil down to “everyone must attend the company outing,” even if it’s uncomfortable for some.
I once had a very senior leader tell me that his strategy for hiring someone is whether they can see themselves “down at the pub” with this candidate. I countered that with, “Can you see yourself delivering a challenging project with the person? That should be your focus.”
As you may have noticed in some of the examples above, biases are not independent of each other. Biases can feed off of and interact with each other in multiple combinations.
It could be that because of some beauty bias you exhibit a halo bias too, and you don’t go with the questions you usually would ask anyone else to ascertain skills and competencies.
There are many more examples of unconscious bias that may creep in (you may want to look up cognitive or unconscious biases), the above are just some of the most common ones you see in the context of hiring.
I highly recommend you research a bit more and read more about biases, especially in the context of different cultures if you’re going to take your hiring global. Books I can recommend are:
- The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business
- BIASES and HEURISTICS: The Complete Collection of Cognitive Biases and Heuristics That Impair Decisions in Banking, Finance and Everything Else
- Bias Interrupted: Creating Inclusion for Real and for Good
- Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men
- Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys' Club of Silicon Valley
- Diversity in the Workplace: Eye-Opening Interviews to Jumpstart Conversations about Identity, Privilege, and Bias
Strategies to reduce bias
Now that we've started identifying how bias can rear its head here and there, let's talk about strategies to reduce the effect your biases in the recruitment process have on your hiring decisions and candidate experience.
As mentioned above, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be able to get rid of your biases altogether, but what you can do is look to exclude their influence from your decision-making process. I'll start with more operational solutions and move towards more comprehensive ones.
Review your job descriptions
While we would like to encourage everyone to apply for any job, no matter what the language used is, time after time studies find that female candidates are less likely to apply for roles that have “masculine” coded words—especially ones that describe a highly competitive environment.
I know too many stories of women who have ignored the “We work hard and play harder” motto at the door of a company and end up at a company outing to a strip club.
Blind CV review
This is something that most modern applicant tracking systems can provide to different degrees of “blindness”.
What I mean by that is hiding the names and generating either a number or a character of some kind (some generate an adjective and an animal e.g. Curious Panda, which is quite cute).
Others go further by parsing the CV, extracting only the experience, and blanking out things like company history and education.
You can make this applicable to hiring managers only or recruiters as well. Many studies have made the headlines that “ethnic-sounding names” got more rejections than “white” sounding ones.
This has the benefit of getting people to focus solely on the experience and will likely increase the diversity in the pipeline going to the interview stage.
However, it is a fairly surface-level solution and, honestly, not my favourite, because it’s a band-aid solution and it doesn't eliminate any potential bias down the line during the interview process.
This is a solution if you do a lot of interviews over video calls, but it's not for everyone. You can either use the Zoom recording tool or a separate tool like Screenloop which records and transcribes an interview and plugs it into your ATS.
This will be an additional expense of course, and bear in mind you should let the candidate know they’re being recorded and that these recordings should be only accessible to the parties relevant to the hiring and easy to retrieve and delete (especially so if in the EU with the GDPR laws).
This may be a good fit for organisations looking to foster transparency, and those that are undergoing a rapid expansion and would like to keep track of the candidate experience interviewers who are newer to the company are providing.
It is also, in my mind, a band-aid and perhaps a bit of an aggressive “Big brother is watching you” force of conformity. Perhaps that’s just me, but I'd rather go deeper in on bias with training and process rather than monitoring.
You may not have the resources and experience to provide those, so monitoring could be a good solution in the interim.
This is where a lot of my focus over my career has been as I’m quite militant with the interviewers I've worked with and grill them on the interview questions they ask candidates and why they ask each question.
My advice is always to be personable but not personal. What does that mean? It means if it's not relevant for the job you don't ask.
You can still be polite and have a bit of small talk without necessarily prying or getting too friendly. You will have plenty of time to get to know people if and when they get hired, but for the moment focus your precious moments of interviewing time on the matter at hand by asking highly relevant and useful questions.
An example of the kind of training I used to run is that I would give people a bunch of questions and open a discussion about which ones are appropriate to ask.
Some were quite obvious like “Are you planning on having kids soon?”—I hope you guessed correctly that the answer is no, it isn’t appropriate to ask something like this. Ever. It doesn't matter if it's the “normal” thing to do where you are, you should be striving to make things better.
In one training session, I had someone say that, for them, it's areally nice thing if someone asks “Where did you grow up?”.
It sparks a conversation that he’s from Spain and that usually is a great ice-breaker. It was interesting to see because my own experiences of being asked that question were never nice.
For context, I am from Bulgaria and live in the UK where there were quite a few negative sentiments flying around about people from Eastern Europe.
For me, my answer about where I am from was always followed by an “Oh…” in various tones from pitying to outright hostile. While I was happy his own experiences were positive, it's not the same for everyone. That’s why it’s best to avoid the question.
Checklist for structured interviewing:
- Is the question relevant to the skillset we require?
- Do you ask the same questions (roughly) of everyone?
- Do you ask for enough depth of the candidates to truly cover expertise?
This is not to say you cannot vary the interview at all with each candidate, but try to not let irrelevant things derail your interview so that candidates cannot be directly compared to each other.
For more on this read my article on the key to focused, engaging interviewing and you will start seeing a pattern of why I structure my interview training the way that I do.
This is a slight offshoot from the structured interviews, but making sure the feedback from the interviewer is well structured and reasoned out has been my biggest weapon in sniffing out potential bias.
Anytime someone either makes a snap decision, or makes a decision on a “hunch” without being able to articulate it, it’s time to dig deeper.
Sometimes this is because they didn't have the right words, or they weren’t sure they could put down what happened, but more often than not it was some sort of bias. These are uncomfortable, but necessary, conversations to have.
Biases mostly live where snap decisions are made, so getting the person to slow down their thinking is vital and try to reason out “The candidate said X I heard Y”—why? Or, even more common, “The candidate didn’t say this thing that I wanted to hear”—why didn’t you ask them?
In an effort to reduce any potential conformity bias, I always advise people not to share their feedback with others until they’ve submitted it in the system and have a decision. This especially applies to senior managers or hiring managers.
A good ATS can make this a breeze by creating roles that can see all the feedback and others that can only see their own.
Seems quite simple, but the first step is your own willingness to educate yourself and come to terms with the kinds of biases that live in your mind all the time.
Get curious about where they may come from, how they appear in the world, and also what is the impact on other parties and your business.
It’s a readily accepted fact that unchecked bias in hiring leads to a less diverse workforce. This could be diversity of ethnicity, socio-economic background, mode of thinking, life experiences, etc.
This inevitably creates a blind spot for your business which only grows as the business grows, and it may even ruin the momentum you have.
There are many companies out there that provide company-wide bias training. I cannot tell you the number of times I've seen the checkered pattern optical illusion image, but the simple fact that I've seen it many times doesn't detract from the fact that it is something new to at least one person in the training group I'm in.
Believe it or not, A and B are the same shade of grey. The first step to education is challenging your own beliefs, even if it's something you see with your own eyes.
Outside of official training, I usually take the time to deliver a few bits and pieces during other interactions to keep cementing the message and get people used to analysing their own behaviours.
Here are a few ideas where you may include some learning points:
- During onboarding—this is a valuable time to put in a bit of information about your overall diversity and inclusion policy and how you help your teams combat bias overall.
- During interview training—always deliver at least a few points specifically on bias, but, overall, the training on how to conduct a well-structured interview is itself a way to reduce bias by drilling in the focus on skills and expertise only.
- Regular monitoring of interview feedback—I always request interview feedback be put in the ATS in full and monitor the feedback received. If it's not detailed or just a single word e.g. “No”, I immediately check why.
- During interview feedback sessions—if you have sessions where multiple people that have interviewed the same candidate discuss the feedback, make sure the moderator is always clear as to why each conclusion was reached by each person.
- Working/employee resource group sessions—I make sure that, if the company I am working with has such groups (e.g. Women's group, LGBTQ+, etc), I have at least one session per year where I make the topic hiring, the bias people have experienced etc, so allies and others can hear it. Of course, engage with those groups first to see if it’s something they’re comfortable with— it's not every single minority group's job to educate against bias.
Tackling your unconscious bias
Why do you need to battle your unconscious bias? Maybe you've read all of this and you are thinking “I’m fine with the way I hire.”
The company is doing fine and my team is nicely homogenous, we make decisions so quickly, and there is no conflict.
To that I'd say “Your team is concerning to me. If no one has had anything to say, or questions the way forward, either all your new hires are like you, and no one knows where problems might arise, or you are a tyrant and no one wants to speak up.”
I'll give perhaps one of the more famous examples of how a company doing well can still fail because they didn't have enough diversity in their team—this one is less serious than others.
YouTube, when first launching their app, found that 5-10% of their videos were upside down. They had no idea why. Finally, they came to the realisation that left-handed people hold their phones horizontally on the opposite axis. (Full case-study here).
Now I'm not advocating for diverse hiring quotas for left-handed people, but it illustrates how your lived experiences inform what you create. If you’re looking for more serious examples, look at how AI still has trouble accurately recognising black people's faces.
Ultimately, minimising your own bias will make you a better colleague, manager, and hiring leader. It will help create a more buzzing environment where different voices can speak up, and you will create a product or service that applies to a larger swathe of the world.
Some further reading to help you with your hiring process.
- Employer Branding: Where To Start And How To Keep It Authentic
- 10 Key Recruiting Metrics To Focus On (And 12 Advanced)
- How To Create A Great Candidate Experience (Even Through Rapid Scaling)
- Recruitment Marketing: What It Is And 10 Effective Tactics
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