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Avoid bias when hiring new employees

Apr 17, 2018 Kate Lopaze

Avoid bias when hiring new employees

At this point, you could probably recite employment discrimination law in your sleep. You know what you have to avoid, by law—religion, race, family status, etc. Not news to you. But while you’re already working hard to avoid straight-up discrimination into the hiring process, are you allowing its quieter, insidious cousin—bias—to sneak in through the back door and affect your hiring decisions?

Understand the difference between conscious and unconscious bias.

Bias is a part of human nature, to varying degrees. It’s simply prejudice toward something or against another. And when bias is explicit, or conscious, it is pretty straightforward. It’s thoughts and statements like: I don’t like people who are _______.  I prefer to associate with people who _______.  I want to hire someone who thinks like me on this particular topic.  Basically, it’s a clear predisposition that you acknowledge (even if only to yourself). Ideally, you don’t let these conscious prejudices sway your hiring, but at least it’s a known quantity that you can acknowledge and work on. Unconscious bias is a bit tougher. It’s prejudice against people or ideas that you may not even realize you have. Unconscious bias includes assumptions or things that you might accept as “true” without realizing that they’re stereotypes or generalizations. This includes thoughts and statements like: Women aren’t good at the hard sciences. [Cultural group] aren’t very hard workers. Men just aren’t very empathetic. [Cultural group] are good at math. See how those work? They may seem like they’re based on “how the world works,” but really they’re assumptions and prejudices that may have very little to do with the actual person in front of you, applying for a job. If you’re curious about your own biases and learning more about how this implicit bias works, the Harvard-developed Implicit Association Test (IAT) can shed some light (though you might want to be mentally prepared to learn some not-ideal things about yourself). Having unconscious bias doesn’t make you a bad person, or necessarily a racist/sexist/whatever-ist. It just means you need to do two things:
  1. Understand how your unconscious biases might be affecting decisions like hiring.
  2. Overcoming that to make sure you’re hiring based entirely on qualifications and fitness for the job, not assumptions.
Making hiring based on biases may not be illegal (depending on what the bias is, and whether it affects a protected class), but in today’s diverse, more-aware world, it can absolutely hurt your hiring and your company. You want to make sure you’re recruiting great people, full stop, but also that you’re doing right by your applicants. Overcoming bias also helps you with diversifying your hires, and bringing new perspectives to your company. Bias is a function of human nature, which means it’s not going away anytime soon. You can’t train it away, you can’t ignore it away, and you can’t policy-write it away. So that means you have to be more creative: make sure you’re taking it out of the hiring process as much as possible. Let’s look at some of the ways you can help eliminate—or at least reduce—bias in the process.

Rethink your job descriptions.

You might not think of job description wording as a potential source of bias, but…it’s the first place to look. Research has shown that women are less likely to apply for jobs that have “masculine-coded” language, and vice versa (though to a lesser extent). And these are words you might not typically think of as one gender or another, but they carry unconscious connotations along the lines of “men are aggressive, dynamic leaders” and “women are consensus-builders and team members.” Some examples of masculine-coded words:
  • Independent
  • Driven
  • Leading
  • Active
Some examples of feminine-coded words:
  • Support
  • Cooperate
  • Honest
  • Interpersonal
None of these words are bad for a job description, per se, but it’s important to be aware of the connotations they can carry. If you’re concerned about your own job descriptions, this Gender Decoder for Job Ads can help you figure out what language you might be using that unconsciously discourages some applicants from even applying.

Come up with an impersonal resume review system.

Studies have shown that resumes can be rife with opportunities for unconscious bias—starting at the literal top of the document. Researchers have found that something as simple as a name that is easily recognizable as a particular ethnic group or gender can trigger bias in the hiring decisions. Some companies are removing that temptation by making sure names, photos, and any identifying info is removed from a resume before a hiring manager or recruiter reads it, but you don’t necessarily have to go to those lengths. It can be as easy as making sure you have a scoring system that ensures you’re evaluating resumes on the same playing field. For example: a certain number of points for a particular educational credential, or points assigned for different levels of experience. That way, each candidate gets a score based solely on what’s in the resume—and not based on who you think the person is.

Recruit more broadly.

One of the biggest sources of bias in the hiring process isn’t racial, cultural, or gender-based: it’s education-based. Companies tend to be biased toward big names on resumes: Stanford, Ivy League, Wharton, etc. We gravitate toward those because they’re well-known as top quality schools, but think about it: do you really need someone who paid for top-shelf education, or do you really need someone who brings the right skill set and experience to the job? It’s probably the latter. The brand name doesn’t actually guarantee applicant quality, so open your mind to other schools, and make sure you’re looking at the full context. You may be dazzled by Candidate A, with the Yale pin on her jacket, but miss that Candidate B, with the State U education, has some stellar qualifications as well. If it’s that Yale has a great Computer Science program and that’s what you want in your candidate, do some research on other top Computer Science programs, and look for candidates from those schools as well—schools that may not have quite the word-of-mouth impression that the Ivies have. Like with the personal biases, creating a name-agnostic point system (where certain educational qualifications, not necessarily the school names), are weighted.

Set your criteria up front.

Before you read a single resume or set up an interview, make sure you’re clear on the criteria you want to use to fill the position. Set your expectations of education level, experience, skills beforehand—ideally in writing. If you use that rubric to evaluate candidates equally, you’re less likely to let “gut feelings” or other subjective reasons sway your hiring decision.

Keep evaluating.

Once you’ve done your best to eliminate bias in your hiring, it’s important to keep an eye on the process to make sure that bias isn’t sneaking back in, and that your efforts are effective. For example, if you’re trying to get more gender diversity in your applicants, but still find that you’re getting (or hiring) male candidates at the same rate as before, it’s time to go back and revisit the process again. Are there any more unconsciously biased phrases in the job description? Are you unconsciously giving preference to Male Candidate over Female Candidate for an arbitrary reason, or for a legitimate reason? Make sure you’re honest about the decisions you’re making, and why. And remember: it’s not that you’re a bad recruiter or a prejudiced person if you find that bias might be affecting your hiring decisions. We’re all subject to bias at one time or another. But it’s never too late to acknowledge the sway that these biases can have (even when we think we’re being fair), and to be mindful about how to make the process more fair for everyone.

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