Unconscious bias is defined as a learned stereotype that is automatic, unintentional, and deeply ingrained within our beliefs. In hiring, unconscious bias causes us to form an opinion about a candidate based exclusively on first impressions.
These hiring biases can cause us to make decisions about a candidate using criteria such as gender, ethnicity, or some other indicator that’s irrelevant to the job description.
Bias can be found in all aspects of the recruitment process. And, by not confronting the various types of hiring bias, companies are missing out. Diversity leads to better profits, more innovation, and higher employee retention rates.
Here are some of the most common types of hiring biases and some ways to combat them.
The 12 types of hiring biases
There are a number of unconscious biases that influence our behavior, decisions, and relationships every day. These 12 biases are especially pertinent to recruiters and hiring managers during the hiring process.
- Similarity bias and affinity bias
- Confirmation bias
- Halo/horns effect
- Law of the instrument bias
- Bandwagon effect
- Choice-supportive bias
- Overconfidence bias
- Leniency bias
- Contrast effect
- Affect heuristics
Similarity bias and affinity bias
Similarity bias is perhaps one of the easiest traps for a recruiter to fall into. Simply put, we tend to want to work more with people who are like us. We’re more inclined to hire people who pass the so-called “beer test” – e.g., ”Could I see myself getting a beer with this person?”. Affinity bias is a similar phenomenon: when you have things in common with a candidate, such as where you went to school or the same hometown, you may prefer that candidate over someone with whom you do not have things in common. Unfortunately, sharing a hometown doesn’t really indicate whether or not a candidate will excel in your sales position, for instance.
Confirmation bias is common outside of recruiting. People naturally favor information that will confirm their previously existing beliefs. In hiring, this type of bias can cause interviewers to support opinions or preconceptions that were formed during the initial application review or phone screen.
Example of confirmation bias
For instance, an applicant’s CV may include a stand-out sales record. An interviewer, in response, may form interview questions that help prove this sales record makes the candidate the perfect new hire. If a candidate is late for the interview, the hiring manager may frame questions to show the candidate isn’t the right fit.
This type of bias describes how a person’s impression can substantially influence one’s thoughts and feelings about that person. The halo effect is when a recruiter focuses too heavily on one positive aspect of a candidate, allowing this positive quality to overshadow all other aspects of a candidate’s application. The opposite of the halo effect is the horns effect, wherein a recruiter focuses on something negative exclusively.
The halo/horns effect is related to expectation anchoring, a type of bias that causes humans to rely too heavily on a trait or characteristic of a person when making a decision. We can get anchored on the wrong information, causing us to miss out on hiring the best possible candidate for the job description.
Example of the halo/horns effect
A good example of the halo effect has to do with our impression of celebrities. Movie stars and models are perceived as attractive and successful; many celebrities benefit from also being perceived as intelligent, kind, and funny. The same is true for the horns effect. A common manifestation of the horns effect is the perception that an overweight person is lazy. “If, for instance, a person is seen to be too loud, or too shy, it could also be assumed that they will not be smart or clever, or good at their job,” describes Forbes.
The law of the instrument bias
Psychologist Abraham Maslow said this of the law of instrument bias: “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” This type of hiring pitfall reflects on the technology your team uses to attract and screen candidates. The basic principle is that if we are given a specific tool, we will be influenced by its function and utility. We’ll become over-reliant on that tool and seek opportunities to use it everywhere.
Example of the law of instrument bias
Law of instrument bias happens in hiring when recruiters only use technology to screen and hire candidates without discerning between roles, skill sets, and experience needed for individual jobs. For instance, if your applicant tracking system doesn’t provide customizations for different roles and different hiring stages, you may be constricting your ability to hire diverse candidates.
The bandwagon effect
The bandwagon effect, sometimes called the conformity bias, describes when people do something because they see other people doing it, often overriding or ignoring their own beliefs or opinions. Hiring teams can fall victim to the bandwagon effect when they compare and share opinions about a candidate in a group. If the urge to find consensus is too strong, or if certain members of the group are more vocal than others, other members of the group may agree to avoid conflict. The bandwagon effect can cause even diverse hiring teams to neutralize their individual judgments in favor of the greater group agreement.
Example of the bandwagon effect
A German study captured the bandwagon effect during a local election, in which students were given information about two candidates running for mayor. Then, students were told one of the candidates was leading in the polls, losing in polls, or even with the other candidate. Students were then asked to rate a candidate’s competence, rating it higher if they were told the candidate was winning in the polls.
Marketers love choice-supportive bias. It’s an unconscious bias that causes people to remember the choice they made in the past as having more positive attributes than was really the case. Likewise, people remember options they didn’t choose more negatively. Choice-supportive bias has negative implications for a hiring team, however. It can convince recruiters that the hiring process is working better than it is. In short, “you may not notice that you’ve missed a number of qualified candidates due to missteps in your process.”
Example of choice-supportive bias
Sports fans are particularly susceptible to choice-supportive bias. A fan of the Red Sox will discount the team’s losing streak or poor pitching and praise their star batter or admire the team’s legacy of winning. In business, a hiring manager who participated in hiring a certain team member is more likely to focus on the positive aspects of an employee’s performance and downplay any performance issues.
The moral credential effect and overconfidence bias
Put simply, the moral credential effect happens when we think highly of ourselves, and are therefore more likely to assume our decisions are good and moral. It’s a type of overconfidence that can cause recruiters to let their subjective confidence cloud their objectiveness. Taking a few steps to reduce hiring bias may cause a hiring team to assume the problem has been fixed. In reality, improving diversity is a concerted, renewed effort that must be constantly measured and evaluated.
Example of the overconfidence bias
A study found that 50% of business people believed they were in the top 10% ethically. Overconfidence bias can lead people to overestimate how much they donate money or how often they volunteer. Overconfidence bias in hiring leads recruiters to assume they’ve done their due diligence in hiring diverse candidates.
Leniency bias comes up frequently at the interview stage, where a recruiter may rate an applicant leniently – forgiving qualities or answers that may otherwise disqualify someone – for fear that it might reflect unfavorably on the interviewer. No one wants to be seen as the “bad guy.” This fear can cause a recruiter to greenlight an applicant due to their own insecurity.
Example of leniency bias
Leniency bias tends to show up frequently in performance reviews, but it also influences the hiring process. A common manifestation of leniency bias occurs when a manager rates his or her employees highly, even though a member of their team may have room for improvement. In the hiring process, if recruiters have pooled candidates that were individually sourced, they may rate all candidates highly to be seen as supporting the work of their colleagues.
Contrast effect is most common in group interview scenarios or when interviews for multiple are scheduled back-to-back. We can subconsciously compare a candidate with those who were interviewed before them, impacting how we perceive their qualifications. For instance, if the previous candidate was very good – or benefitted from a halo effect or similarity bias – the candidate interviewed next may be perceived as not qualified.
Example of contrast effect
Beyond interviewing, contrast effect commonly shows up during a resume review. Recruiters who manually sort through CVs may inadvertently assess the qualifications of one applicant against the CV preceding it, rather than in relation to the job description. This can lead to a recruiter being unnecessarily harsh on some well-qualified candidates.
A heuristic is a mental shortcut that allows us to make a decision quickly. The affect heuristic happens when something about a candidate causes the recruiter to make a decision without considering all the facts.
Example of heuristics
We unconsciously use tons of shortcuts to make decisions throughout the hiring process. For instance, if a candidate has tattoos, the recruiter may dismiss this candidate’s capabilities out of hand. Gender, appearance, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and disability each have associated stereotypes that lead into heuristics.
How hiring bias affects your organization
Hiring bias and the lack of diversity that results from these intrinsic biases have far-reaching effects on organizational success.
Inclusive and diverse organizations are more profitable.
Research by McKinsey & Co found a positive and statistically significant correlation between diverse executive teams and financial performance.
“Companies in the top-quartile for gender diversity on their executive teams were 21% more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile. For ethnic/cultural diversity, top-quartile companies were 33% more likely to outperform on profitability.”– McKinsey, Delivering Through Diversity.
McKinsey’s report goes even further in revealing the link between diverse hiring practices and profitability:
- Companies in the top 25% for gender diversity on executive teams were 21% more likely to outperform their national industry median on EBIT margin and 27% on EP margin.
- Companies with the most ethnically/culturally diverse executive teams – not only in terms of absolute representation but also of the variety or mix of ethnicities– are 33% more likely to outperform their peers on profitability.
- Companies with the most ethnically and culturally diverse boards worldwide are 43% more likely to experience higher profits.
Bottom line: hiring bias can inhibit your company’s financial growth and profit margins. By failing to address hidden biases in your recruiting process, you’re actually hindering your company’s potential for success.
Diverse organizations are more innovative.
Diversity is also tied to innovation. One study examined the impact of two types of diversity – inherent diversity, which relates to traits such as gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation; and acquired diversity, which refers to traits gained from experience. The study focused on companies that had two-dimensional diversity, e.g. those that had leaders with both inherent and acquired diversity.
The outcome proved that diversity creates an “environment where ‘outside the box’ ideas are heard” – ideas that led to translate to innovation and results. Employees at diverse companies are 45% likelier to report a growth in market share over the year, and 70% likelier to report that the business captured a new market.
“When minorities form a critical mass and leaders value differences, all employees can find senior people to go to bat for compelling ideas and can persuade those in charge of budgets to deploy resources to develop those ideas.”– Harvard Business Review
Confirming this initial report, a Boston Consulting Group study found that companies that have diverse management teams bring in 19% higher revenues due to innovation.
Hiring bias translates to higher turnover.
Hiring bias can cause us to hire the wrong candidate. As much as 80% of employee turnover results from bad hires, an expensive and time-consuming problem that plagues companies of all sizes. The cost of a bad hire depends on the role and other factors, but it’s commonly estimated to be around 2.5x times salary – easily hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Even when we do manage to hire the right candidate, bias can continue to impact the employee’s experience beyond the recruitment process. The feedback process is a critical part of the employee experience and one that can be tarnished by hidden bias. Feedback can be affected by gender bias – when someone receives different feedback based on their gender – and by the halo/horns effect or confirmation bias. When employees aren’t given the same quality of feedback, this can have long-term implications on someone’s career trajectory. Some may be compelled to move to a different company to get ahead.
Tackling unconscious bias in hiring practices
The pitfalls of failing to hire the right candidate are no secret. Many recruiters are aware that their company should be tackling unconscious bias in hiring. But, diversity hiring is still hard for many companies.
Part of the reason these hiring biases exist is that recruiters are overstretched. The average job posting attracts 250 applications. A high-volume hiring event can bring in tens of thousands of applications. That means recruiters only spend about 7 seconds reading each resume; and as a result, recruiters must create shortcuts to process each application efficiently.
Unfortunately, these shortcuts are often grounded in bias. Applicants get screened based on how similar or recognizable their background is to the recruiter or to the existing employee pool, using heuristics like education, extracurriculars, or professional association.
Some companies may not even be aware that their application process reinforces hidden bias. For instance, 9% of candidates with disabilities drop out of job applications early because there are usability issues with a careers page or the actual application. The language in a job description can also be alienating. Huffington Post reported that the term “ninja” plays into male stereotypes, attracting more male candidates to apply instead of women. “While companies may not be doing this intentionally, unconscious bias is directly affecting the types of candidates who apply for the job,” writes one expert.
To tackle hiring bias, companies need to look at their hiring bias holistically. Where are recruiters stretched thin? What touchpoints may be unintentionally discouraging qualified, diverse candidates from applying? Where can technology take over for human error?
How to eliminate unconscious bias
Eliminating unconscious bias is a difficult, iterative process. It starts with becoming conscious of what biases may be baked into recruiting at your company. “Awareness training is the first step to unraveling unconscious bias because it allows employees to recognize that everyone possesses them and to identify their own,” one expert told SHRM.
Next, look for easy ways to make sure you’re being more open to diverse candidates. Run your job descriptions through a tool like the Gender Decoder to make sure the language you’re using is gender-neutral. Make sure your company’s website is compatible with a screen reader, and use alt-text on images to describe them. If you’re interviewing a candidate with limited mobility, offer an online interview so they can still participate in the process without difficulty.
Use your employer branding initiatives to showcase how your culture elevates and empowers employees of all backgrounds. Articles, blogs, and employee testimonies can put your company on the map for candidates that may never have considered working for your organization. Highlight ways your company supports community initiatives and is committed to personal development. The more human you can make your organization, the greater appeal you’ll have to candidates from all walks of life.
Finally, go deeper in putting technology to work for you. Recruiters can use an AI solution that assesses the results of an objective skills test. A merit-based, automated ranking tool takes data from the skills assessment and delivers a list of candidates ranked against each other. No one is eliminated based on their educational background or professional credentials: instead, recruiters receive a list of the top-performing candidates from the skills test, after their capabilities have been validated.
How skill tests help you avoid hiring bias
A skill test can help take some of the bias out of the interview process and give recruiters a new evaluation metric to consider. There’s ample evidence to suggest skill assessments work better than many other traditional hiring methods recruiters have relied on in the past. When used like an online job audition, skill tests give candidates the chance to perform tasks that are relevant to the job for which they’ve applied. An algorithm analyzes the way they’ve performed with an automatic ranking. It’s an efficient way to let the candidate step into the role for a short while and see if they’re a good fit (not a “culture fit”).
AI tools have gotten a lot of bad press for perpetuating hidden biases. It’s true that there are some notorious examples of companies having to scrap their AI recruiting tools after the algorithms replicated some of the biases intrinsic to the human recruiting process. But, importantly, the flaw in these tools isn’t the technology. It’s the data fed into the algorithms. When an AI component assesses candidates based on the information on their resume, the result is no different than if a human ranked candidates manually with all their heuristics and other shortcuts.
Instead, skill assessments provide the opportunity for candidates to participate in the hiring process based on what they can actually do. The AI ranks candidates for the interview stage, so recruiters receive a list of the top candidates after their qualifications have been validated.
Diversity needs to be a company-wide, holistic commitment. Institute key metrics and dedicated resources to combat unconscious hiring bias. Create metrics that incentivize recruiters to focus on building meaningful diversity. Set aside a budget and other resources to pool nontraditional candidates. Make sure that the entire organization realizes that hiring-as-usual practices aren’t going to deliver the results needed for diverse candidates to find a place at your organization.