Managing Unconscious Bias in the Hiring Process

Let’s take a moment to think about all the hard work our brains do. At any given moment, they’re receiving 11 million pieces of information. If it sounds like a lot, that’s because it is! Human brains can only consciously process 40 pieces of information. So it’s only natural that they might look for ways to take some shortcuts. And in some cases, this is great. It means that we can focus on things like not being eaten by a predator while still continuing to breathe. Great work, brain! But in other cases, it means that we make decisions based on opinions we’ve formed about different groups or sets of people, often without realizing it. Not so good.

At Greenhouse, we recently had the opportunity to participate in unconscious bias training with Paradigm, and I wanted to share a few of the key points we covered when it comes to unconscious bias in the interview and hiring process.

Why talk about unconscious bias?

The process of uncovering and helping to mitigate unconscious bias has several potential benefits. It allows you to make better decisions overall, creates an environment where everyone can share their ideas and opinions, and helps you to build a more diverse and inclusive company. Studies have shown that diverse teams are smarter, make better decisions, and are better at complex problem solving, plus many companies (including Greenhouse) recognize the importance of having a company that reflects the diversity of the communities we serve, so it’s in everyone’s interest to address unconscious bias during the hiring process.

What exactly is unconscious bias?

Okay, so I’ve used this term a few times already, but what exactly does it mean? Unconscious bias is the brain’s tendency to take mental shortcuts, relying on observed patterns (including cultural stereotypes) to quickly and subconsciously process information.

Writer Daniel Kahneman explains this in the book Thinking, Fast and Slow, where he categorizes System 1 and System 2 thinking (see excerpt from this book). In a nutshell, System 1 thinking is unconscious, automatic processing that relies on the primitive part of the brain (e.g. avoid getting eaten by a predator). System 2 thinking, on the other hand, is deliberate and conscious (e.g. learning to drive).

Pop quiz!

We all have unconscious biases. In order to see what this looks like in action, head over to Harvard’s implicit bias test page. You can try out a range of tests to learn more about how bias reveals itself. We did a quick version of one of these tests during our workshop and I think we were all surprised by the results. The tests are quick and eye-opening, so it’s worth spending a few minutes to try one or two out!

How unconscious bias can impact hiring

Résumé review

You might have an image in your mind that influences how you interpret the information on a résumé you’re reviewing. For example, we learned about one study where participants were asked to select the best person for a role, and they were more likely to choose the male candidate, even though it meant flip-flopping on what they said was a priority. In the first scenario, they said education was more important than experience, but in the second scenario, they said experience was more important than education—in both cases these arguments justified hiring the male candidate. However, when participants were asked first whether they prioritized education or experience, they’d then choose the candidate who fit their priorities, regardless of their gender.

This means that one of the main ways you can try to counteract the effects of unconscious bias during résumé review is by clearly defining the qualities you’re looking for in candidates. Decide whether you’ll be prioritizing experience, education, specific hard or soft skills—and stick to that decision!

Interview stage

There are a few ways bias can occur during the interview stage. One type of bias is confirmation bias, which is the tendency to pay attention to, remember, and seek out information that confirms a belief we already have as well as the tendency to ignore, explain away, or forget information that conflicts with it.

Another common bias is similar to me bias, which is people’s tendency to like people who are similar to themselves, even if it’s irrelevant to the job.

Culture fit interviews can also be a point when bias creeps into the hiring process. What are you asking existing employees to look for during this stage? If it’s not clearly defined, or if you’re using something like “Would I like to get a beer with this person?” as the sole indicator, there’s a good chance you’re sending the signal that you’d like employees to only hire people who are similar to (or the same as) those who are already there.

One of the best ways to mitigate these biases is by creating a Structured Hiring process. If recruiters, hiring managers, and the rest of the hiring team spend time reflecting on relevant criteria, planning questions, and creating a rubric for evaluating answers in advance, it will reduce the chances that interviewers will make biased decisions. Having predetermined questions also cuts down on the likelihood that interviewers will make small talk or ask questions that are irrelevant to the job but address their desire to find those “similar to me” characteristics. And research shows that structured interviews are better predictors of job performance than unstructured interviews.

Key takeaways

We’ve looked at a few of the ways bias can influence our approach to hiring, but we’ve only just scratched the surface. There are many more ways bias can affect not only who succeeds in the interview stage and who we ultimately hire, but how we rate performance and who we promote.

The question is not whether we’re biased—we know that everyone is—but how do our biases affect our work, and what can we do about it?

The first step, of course, is understanding that these biases exist, but awareness is not enough. It’s essential to develop strategies for managing bias. We covered a few strategies in this post (clearly defining what you’re looking for, implementing a Structured Hiring process), but we’d love to hear your thoughts. What’s your approach for mitigating bias during the interview process and during other stages of the employee lifecycle?  If you’d like to learn more about Paradigm’s work and this topic, be sure to check out their white paper, Managing Unconscious Bias.

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Melissa Suzuno

Melissa Suzuno is the Content Marketing Manager at Greenhouse, where she gets to share her love of the written word and endorse the use of the Oxford comma on a daily basis. Before joining Greenhouse, Melissa built out the content marketing programs at Parklet (an onboarding and employee experience solution) and AfterCollege (a job search resource for recent grads), so she's made it a bit of a habit to help people get excited about and invested in their work. Find Melissa on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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Diversity & Inclusion