Is Unconscious Bias Hurting Your Recruitment Efforts?

Biases can lead to a workplace that’s exclusionary, rather than welcoming — and they can be costly for your business.


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Is unconscious bias hurting your recruitment efforts?

Acquiring the best talent available in your market is key to business success. Smart recruiters cast a wide net to sample who’s available in the area with the skills they need. They know a diverse workforce brings a variety of perspectives and ideas to the organization and strive to build a culture of inclusion. Often, however, unconscious bias makes it difficult to meet those goals.

Unconscious bias can be so subtle your first reaction might be that it doesn’t happen in your company. Still, we all have biases — some positive and some negative. It’s human nature to gravitate toward the known. You see a candidate attended the same university you did and assume they were a good student. You see a resume with gaps in employment and presume there’s something amiss. Research shows people tend to reject resumes for people whose names are unusual or challenging to pronounce. These small biases add up to a workplace that’s exclusionary, rather than welcoming.

The high cost of exclusion

These biases are expensive. Some estimates suggest unconscious bias in the workplace costs American businesses over $64 billion annually. Data reveals job seekers want to work for companies at are inclusive: when recruitment doesn’t reflect a welcoming environment, candidates are not applying for your positions. The more narrow the talent pool from which you have to choose, the more lengthy, costly, and unsuccessful recruitment efforts become.

The impact continues throughout the company’s bottom line: McKinsey found companies with higher gender diversity are more profitable than their counterparts at the low end of the scale. Organizations with high ethnic diversity showed the same results. A diverse workplace is a priority for many job seekers – and it’s profitable for business.

Even tech can have bias

Technology is only as capable as the people who program and analyze it: bias may not be built into the system, but it can be learned.

Bias isn’t reserved for humans. The use of technology to screen candidates was a boon to recruiters, until they began to uncover how artificial intelligence (AI) itself began to show bias. The elegance of AI is its ability to learn. Over time, for applicant screening, the tech sought out candidates with a high probability of job success. Unfortunately, many organizations found their systems were too literal in their screening.

Amazon found its systems screened out any resume that included the word ‘women’s.’ If the applicant was captain of the women’s chess club, she was eliminated. Why? Because the algorithm taught itself that male candidates were preferable based on resume patterns over the past 10 years. Another company found its algorithm gave preference to men named Jared or anyone who played high school lacrosse, again based on learned and historical data. Technology is only as capable as the people who program and analyze it: bias may not be built into the system, but it can be learned.


For most companies, technology is still the answer. Some use or program applicant screening systems to remove all language that could elicit a positive or negative response. Names are removed, including names of schools, to eliminate preferences or rejection. Addresses and phone numbers are erased to assure no geographical bias (one of my neighbors!). These screening tools can help eliminate the data points that can produce a biased response, allowing recruiters to hone in on skills, experience, and qualifications only. They can be a valuable tool in reducing bias in the hiring process.

For organizations that don’t use sophisticated software to reduce bias, the process has to be more intentional. Actively promoting change and growth will require effort, but it’s achievable, meaningful, and worthwhile.

A hands-on approach

Analyze your organization to determine whether you represent the community and your customer base. The more diversity, the better when it comes to servicing clients. If you can expand, make the decision consciously and set goals that are attainable. You won’t want to fire half your workers to make room for a more diverse group; but you can make sure that any separations are replaced with a wider variety of hires.

Look out for clustering in your organization. Are all the women in office roles? Find ways to expand this group to other areas of the company. Look for ethnic and age clustering, as well. The goal is to be proactive: you can’t make corrections where you don’t see room for improvement.

Where to make changes

Building a more diverse workforce starts with rethinking your processes and selections. Where you advertise vacancies can limit the amount and variety of candidates who apply. The wider your reach, the more a diverse talent pool will respond. Take time to analyze your sources: are you getting a homogenous response to your ads? If so, look for other avenues to post your positions. When talent is plentiful, it’s a good idea to expand your search: when it’s scarce, it’s critical to do so. The result in either case is a larger group from which to choose and hire.

When screening applications and resumes, ask why you eliminated or chose one candidate over another. What subjective, job-related criteria was a part of your decision? Recruiters must focus on qualifications and experience to the exclusion of almost all other resume data. Remember it’s about the work, not the worker. When you make your list of ‘call’ or ‘exclude’ candidates, take a few minutes to review what caused you to put each applicant in their respective stack.

When you make your list of ‘call’ or ‘exclude’ candidates, take a few minutes to review what caused you to put each applicant in their respective stack.

What specific qualification or experience was lacking in the excluded stack? If there are none missing, you might want to rethink your choice. What qualification or experience caused you to put someone in the callback pile? How do they compare to the others in that group or even the excluded group? If one has more experience or better qualifications, your choice may be unbiased. If they are equally or similarly qualified, dig deeper. Look for the actual reason you disqualified them. If it’s work-related, move forward. If it’s based on assumptions or stereotypes, you’ve recognized a bias you can eliminate from your hiring process.

Make it a team effort

To double-check, making selection a team process can be helpful. Ask another person to review your choices: a second set of eyes is always welcome and can offer ideas you may not have considered. If you typically involve team members later on in the hiring process, have them involved earlier, at the screening stage. They may make choices very different than yours.

When managers make their own selections, HR may be out of the loop until the hiring process is almost complete. It’s important make sure there’s no bias at the departmental level. Every hiring authority in the organization needs to be on board and proactive in creating a welcoming, inclusive workplace. For those managers whose department are populated primarily with one gender or ethnicity, intervention may be needed. Offer to help them with screening, interviewing and selection. They may be unaware of unconscious bias in their recruitment practices. Structured interviews are another way to eliminate bias. By asking every candidate the same questions, you level the playing field for job seekers.

When it comes time to make a hiring decision, consider a more intentional approach. If you have a selection of equally or similarly qualified candidates you may have an opportunity to make a conscious decision to diversify your workforce. If you’ve set goals that you’re being challenged to meet, allow more time to hire. The process may be different, but the results are worthwhile.

Leaders know diversity is a win for workers and business. Don’t let recruitment hinder your efforts to create an inclusive workplace. Recognizing and rejecting unconscious bias may be key to organizational growth and prosperity.


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