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Part 5: Reducing Unconscious Hiring Bias in Recruiting

*Editor's note: Download our full Diversity and Inclusion Handbook for more than 70 pages of tangible strategies to help you cultivate diversity and inclusion on your team.

We believe passionately that diverse and inclusive companies make for more innovative, engaged, and happy teams, and we speak with forward-thinking talent leaders all the time who feel the same. We’re writing this series on how to improve diversity and inclusion in the workplace because people are ready for the next level of discourse around diversity and inclusion; one aimed at actual solutions. In it, you’ll find tactical advice, beneficial resources, and examples of what companies are doing today to make real progress in diversity and inclusion. Read our series introduction to see what we cover throughout the series. 

Imagine you come across an ad for your dream job. The day-to-day is exactly what you've been looking for, in the industry that you've wanted to break into for a while. On top of that, the gig would come with a significant pay raise and even reduce your daily commute. You submit your resume, wondering if it’s too good to be true. 

Unfortunately, when you come in to interview, you realize it is. The recruiter proudly tells you, the company happens to be entirely left-handed, and it's a huge part of the culture. You notice pro-left-handedness messages on posters decorating the walls, and feel pangs of anxiety. When you mention to the recruiter that you’re right handed, she’s taken aback. “Are you sure?” she asks. “Um, pretty sure,” you reply, and she looks visibly worried. From there, it gets weirder. Some interviewers seem vaguely confrontational, one remarking, “We haven’t had a right-hander work here in years.” Another seems determined to not make eye contact with you. Another interviewer actually chokes on his coffee when you start taking notes... with your right hand.

You did meet some genuinely nice people, but you just didn’t feel good being in the office. No one was outwardly cruel, but you realize you still felt like an outsider. So, when the recruiter calls back and invites you to the final round interview, you decline.


What if we told you that this happens all the time? In your company, right now? Sure, the above is an exaggerated example, but you can imagine something similar playing out when a candidate who is different in any way walks into your office.

In this post, we’ll cover: how biases show up in hiring, why biases are unavoidable, and tactics and tips for curtailing their influence, so the scenario above doesn’t happen at your organization.


Building a diverse workforce by removing hiring bias

First, we need to cover the basics: A common concern we hear about diversity recruiting is around quality. “But we shouldn’t lower the hiring bar.”

And we won’t! Let me assure you, no reasonable person is going around arguing that we should only hire say, women in favor of more qualified male candidates. Diversity and inclusion supporters like you and me share a common goal: building inclusive workplaces to better support *every* demographic.

Here’s the thing: it’s not possible for any one *individual* to be diverse. Diversity is not a fixed trait, but a factor that only becomes relevant when you’re talking about *groups* of people. Individuals are still ultimately responsible for the skills, experience, and team contributions – no free passes – no matter what demographic.

But when we examine groups in aggregate, it’s hard to deny the problematic patterns and all the ways we could collectively improve. Some groups are unfairly disadvantaged based on factors they cannot control. This can result in entire industries dominated by men, for example, or entirely-white management.

Despite our best intentions, our organizations are riddled with biases, both conscious and unconscious. This is especially the case for recruiting, the very beginning of the employee lifecycle. Thoughtful, inclusive hiring is not only the right thing to do, it’s a huge competitive advantage for your organization.

Inclusive hiring allows you to find “hidden gem” talent that other companies don’t recognize. And, you’ll make fewer mistakes, or mis-hires: candidates who look a certain part but ultimately fail to deliver results. So let’s get started.

You’re biased and I am too

Before diving into the tactics, it’s important to acknowledge that all of us have unconscious biases. Let’s me say this again: we ALL have unconscious biases. Period. The trouble is, when left unchecked, they lead us to make snap judgments and fall prey to stereotypes in decision-making.

Having biases doesn't make us bad people, it's simply an evolutionary trait. For thousands of years, we’ve been wired to make snap judgments that increase our chances of survival.

Why do we make snap judgments?: Humans are social creatures, extremely attuned to other people and whether one “belongs” or not – it used to be critical to our survival. Our ancestors evolved to figure out quickly who was a member of our tribe (“in-group”) vs. not (“out-group”). Choosing wrong and not reacting quickly enough to a potential threat could jeopardize our survival.  

→ What does this mean? We’ve been wired to categorize others quickly: friend vs. not. Thousands of years later, most of us aren’t walking around constantly on the alert for a tiger or a surprise attack from an enemy tribe. Our evolutionary wiring helped us survive in the past, but today – when we evaluate people for our mundane office jobs and the fight for survival is purely metaphorical – it can manifest itself in more negative ways, like implicit stereotyping.

→ We're predisposed to look for homogeneity and feel safe when surrounded by people who look and feel similar. But as research shows over and over again, it’s diversity that leads to smarter, more creative teams and better performance for businesses.

That was the biology lesson. Back to hiring!

With greater awareness of biases, hiring teams can become less reliant on ‘shortcuts’ that limit better judgment. It won’t be easy though; educating hiring decision-makers that their reliance on “gut feeling” needs to go is not simple. However, tackling that feeling of initial discomfort is a necessary step in creating better results for the entire team.


Bonus Tip:
Harvard has developed a free online tool called the Implicit Association Test (IAT) to help the unconscious become more conscious. Check out the website and try out a few of their tests – it’s a window into self-awareness, and you may be surprised by the results.

(More resources to identifying and managing biases linked below)


Below are four actions you can take for immediate, yet meaningful impact in reducing biases in recruiting:

1. Write better job descriptions 

2. Spark a dialogue about biases

3. Focus and inform interviewers 

4. Track and measure bias


 Using diverse language to write inclusive job descriptions

Job descriptions are often the first real touch point between your prospective candidates and your company. How great of an impression is it – do people get fired up about submitting a resume? Or do subtle cues discourage would-be-candidates to close the browser tab and apply elsewhere?

Too often, traditional job descriptions are cursory documents – checklists of requirements and pedigree that may or may not actually match the job. A common complaint about job descriptions in HR circles is that they’re descriptive of what the person should *look* like, instead of what needs to be *done* on the job. But great candidates can come from various backgrounds.

My team at Lever invented a new type of inclusive job description, and it’s called the Impact Description (see live examples here). They’re made up of two key parts:

  1. The outcomes a new hire would be expected to achieve at specific milestones (months 1, 3, 6, then 12)
  2. It articulates what the new hire would be expected to know already and help others with (labeled as "Teach") versus would they would have to develop on the job (labeled as "Learn").

The feedback from applicants has been overwhelmingly positive. Candidates appreciate the clarity of expectations and the signal it sends – that companies that employ these type of inclusive job descriptions care a lot about candidates as people.

Impact Descriptions also have turned out to provide an unexpected benefit in saving significant time in the overall hiring process. When job descriptions are written much more concretely, they can be deliberately folded into your interviews to actively guide your interviewers on what to look for. In contrast, the job description usually gets forgotten as soon as resumes start coming in. (For more specific steps on how to make-over your job descriptions, here’s a step-by-step guide.)

Revamping job descriptions benefits everyone, but can be especially helpful for diversity and inclusion efforts. As one often-cited Hewlett Packard study showed, men apply for a job when they meet only 60 percent of the outlined qualifications, but women don’t feel confident to apply unless they meet 100 percent. Rethinking the “requirements” section and remove the checklists that impede women and minorities from applying, and you’ll have access to a larger talent pool.  

There are some exceptions, as in the case of specific technical skills that are absolutely required for a job. But ask yourself: is it something that must already be possessed by the candidate? Or can it be learned / are you willing to teach someone who is otherwise excellent? Does that job *really* need a 4-year college degree? If not, why would we want to discourage those who may be qualified from applying? All questions worth asking with your own team.


Bonus Tip:
If you’re not ready to switch over to Impact Descriptions, start small: Textio is a fantastic tool helping companies analyze the language of your job descriptions. Their studies have found that bias embedded in job descriptions can favor/discourage certain candidates. Language is a reflection to candidates of your culture, and a signal whether your workplace is what they’re looking for. If your postings are laden with words like “hacker,” “shark,” “dominate,” etc., they might inadvertently signal to women and minorities to look elsewhere.

 Spark a dialogue to stop bias in recruiting

A study found that resumes with a “white” sounding name (Emily and Greg) received 50% more callbacks than “black” names (Lakisha and Jamal) – even though the resumes were identical. We can extrapolate the results of this study to imagine what the impact could be, and the impact on the potential missed opportunities for talent in companies everywhere. Yes, hiring is hard. But maybe we aren’t examining our blind spots enough.

The tricky thing about unconscious bias in recruiting is that we’re usually not aware of them. Still, they sneak into the hiring process in all kinds of ways. Have you heard anything like the following in hiring huddles before?

• “She was fairly quiet and low-energy, I don’t know if she’s confident enough.”
• “I have a hard time imagining that he’d be commanding enough. Did he feel like a ‘leader’ to you?”
• “She just didn’t seem very technical to me.”

These are examples of implicit associations that can get in the way of smart hiring decisions. Being quiet, or more introverted, is often confused with lack of confidence. There are many ways to advance as a leader or technical expert in a field, but sometimes, we equate stereotypical images as the real deal. Being a white male MIT Computer Science grad is just *one* stereotype of technical ability, and sometimes it is true! The problem is when we reject a minority female grad from a technical bootcamp because she just doesn’t quite feel like a *real* engineer.  

There are also statements like below, where you end up hiring for prestige and adopting whatever institutional biases exist at your organization and in your industry.

•“We should get some Google engineers in here.”
•“If they’re from Facebook, they must be good.”
•“If Twitter is giving them an offer, we probably should too.”

Then of course, there’s the bias that occurs when culture fit is conflated with meaning people who are similar to the existing team, and not being open to differences that may actually help the group:

• “I’m not sure I can see myself getting a beer with him...”
• “I don’t think she’d be a fit, but I can’t quite put my finger on why.”
• “I don’t think they’d gel very well with the team, since we’re all the type of people who like to do X on weekends.”

A conversation about unconscious biases with your team is a great place to start, as it’s something that affects everyone. Hopefully from the conversation, what people should take away is that nobody is perfect, and growth is incremental.

Aim to reach a collective agreement on what to look out for and be aware of, and decide on safe ways to call each other out from a place of good intentions. You’ll know you’re making progress when team members start pointing out, “Hey, that sounds like it might be an unconscious bias. What are some other possible interpretations of this candidate’s answer?”


Bonus Tip:
We recommend the unconscious bias training from Facebook, which covers several types of biases in easily-digestible 5-15 minute modules. They’re a great conversation starter.

See also: Materials from Google and Paradigm, one of our favorite leading consultancies offering Unconscious Bias Trainings.

Focus and inform interviewers

Now that we’ve covered better job descriptions and a discussion on unconscious biases, the foundation has been laid. Here are three critical areas to set your interviewers up for success in effectively screening candidates:

  1. Ensure hiring panel alignment on how candidates should be evaluated
  2. Establish basic guidelines for resume reviewing
  3. Structure and plan your interviews

The greater number of people involved in a hiring process, the more complex it gets; there’s a greater likelihood of someone not being familiar with the nuances of the role. And that lends itself to relying on mental shortcuts or poor interviewing techniques, which could preventing you from finding and closing the right candidate.

Ensure hiring panel alignment on how candidates should be evaluated

At the beginning of every search, gather the hiring panel for a short meeting. Walk through the job description and make sure everyone’s on the same page about the evaluation criteria. If you hear your sales hiring manager ask for former athletes, or an engineer demonstrating a strong preference for a certain type of technologies that’s not critical to the job, ask thoughtful questions to help people talk out what is Required versus Desired. It’s much better to test these assumptions early in the process, before conversations become about real people!

Establish basic guidelines for resume reviewing guidelines

Walk through the basics of resume-reviewing with your hiring team. Explain that just relying on schools and past organizations only tells a small part of the story. Instead, use the resume to understand the whole story behind a person, with questions like these:

  • Does this person demonstrably show growth in their environment? Do they have a consistent pattern of promotions? Or if the organization was relatively flat, of increased responsibilities?
  • Does this person’s language indicate a healthy view of their contribution (not too exaggerated, overblown, egotistical), including specific details on what they were proud of?
  • Does the organization of the resume indicate a conscientious ability to communicate with others? (e.g. minimal typos, careful to explain jargon and make it accessible for the reader)
Structure and plan your interviews

You’d be surprised how much of an impact some basic structure can have. Structured interviews (planned questions, asked across multiple candidates) with behavioral questions are more likely to get you the information you need for a sound hiring decision. Focus on the “why” and “how” to learn about the candidate – what their strengths/weaknesses are, as well as how they learn and problem-solve. Ask open-ended questions to gather stories:

  • “Tell me about a time when a customer was upset or displeased.”
  • “When’s the last time you had to do something in your job you had no idea how to do?”
  • “Can you tell me about the last piece of constructive feedback your manager gave you?”

This is as opposed to oddball questions like “Why is a manhole round?” or “How many golf balls would fit inside a 747 airplane?” Brain teasers and off-the-cuff questions have been found to be not that helpful in predicting great hires vs. those who need to be rejected. Lastly, studies have shown that biographical data measures (such as years of experience and education) are largely unhelpful in separating out great talent.

Remember that much stronger predictors of success in a potential employee are found in the tapestry of work samples, structured investigation of past patterns of success, comparison against the required competencies of the job, peer/manager ratings, and motivation fit. Focus on these areas to make sure you can identify top talent, no matter their background or privileges.


Bonus Tip:
The People Operations team at Google has taken their learnings from thousands of interviews over many years to publish a guide for Structured Interviewing.Check it out for a further deep-dive into the why’s and the mechanics of structured interviewing, along with specific examples and sample tools you can copy and adopt. 

Track and measure bias in recruiting

It’s not possible to fully measure the impact of unconscious bias. There are too many signals that are too subtle to possibly identify, let alone track.  

At the same time, “what gets measured gets managed,” they say. Establishing benchmarks and making incremental goals is key in more inclusive hiring. Here are some starting-point suggestions.    

  • Company demographics. Determine the makeup of your team and compare against local census data. Start a discussion about the trends and discrepancies you see. If diversity and inclusion efforts are just taking off in your organization, we recommend using this step as a current snapshot and to be able to compare against it in the future. This is as opposed to using the demographic data to set explicit recruiting goals (e.g. hire 2x more women this year). This is because 1) explicit goals around hiring numbers can send the wrong message to your team, who may wonder what’s being sacrificed in the pursuit of diversity and 2) diversity and inclusion work takes time, and moving too quickly on setting aggressive goals in recruiting may result in short-term results and long-term failure. Even if diversity is prioritized in recruiting, if the work environment and company culture still have problems, your unsatisfied new hires will rightly leave.  
  • Candidate experience. Send a survey to candidates with both quantitative (such as “How likely are you to re-apply for one of our positions in the future?”) and qualitative fields (“What was the highlight of your interview experience? What about a low point?”). Have every single response read by a human. You never know how much impact one comment could have in making you aware of your blind spots. And if you end up hearing about an inappropriate joke from an interviewer or a hiring manager who repeatedly failed to follow up, treat it as the feedback as a gift to help you improve in a way that you would have not known otherwise. Ensuring the same mistake doesn’t get repeated means you’re getting better at your game and less likely to lose top candidates in the future.
  • Conversion rates vs EEO data. A caveat, you’ll need larger sets of data to be able to run this analysis. Take your conversion rates (e.g. What percentage of resumes submitted are moved to phone screen?) and intersect them with demographic data collected by Equal Employment Opportunity, an optional set of questions that can be enabled in your ATS like Lever. For example, you might find that underrepresented candidates are passing phone screens but falling off after on-site panels at a disproportionately high rate. This tells you there is likely some sort of bias in a particular stage. With this information, you can identify the problem like a detective: maybe it’s an untrained interviewer turning people off. Maybe it’s the type of questions asked that’s unfair to a certain group. In addition to conversion rates, you can run the same analysis with interview scores. If underrepresented groups are consistently ranking lower in certain stages and questions, maybe there’s underlying bias at play. More opportunities for detective work!

Bonus Tip: Not every company is set up or resourced for substantial metrics and data analyses in diversity recruiting. In that case, we recommend focusing your energy on low-hanging fruit. Here are 50+ ideas for cultivating diversity and inclusion that you can start today.  

Conclusion

Almost everything that makes teams better interviewers makes them less biased as well.

Hopefully, you now have a better of idea of how to start, by establishing robust criteria and results expected in the job description, working closely with your hiring stakeholders to ensure they’re educated on common biases, and knowing how to correct for it.

But it’s still a lot. When it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, I hope you won’t let perfection be the enemy of progress. Even if you can't start on the above ideas immediately, pick just one thing and move forward. Many teams I’ve talked to can tell me off the bat at least one thing they wish was better in their recruiting process, but they aren't yet doing it! That's because while everyone knows that writing great job descriptions is important, when the moment comes to open a new posting, you don't “have the time” and tell yourself you’ll start with the next opening, resorting to copy-pasting the one today from a previous one.  

Combating bias isn't glorious – it's can be quite tedious. It's taking the additional time to do what's right even when doing it the same way as you always have comes easier. But when you take it step-by-step, one low-hanging fruit at a time, you’ll start seeing a difference. And by then, you’ll be empowered to tackle bigger and bigger challenges, to make a real dent in building inclusive organizations.

For more, read our next post on how to diversify your pipeline, and download our Diversity & Inclusion Handbook for hundreds of impactful tactics like the ones above. 

Further reading

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Five years ago, Sheryl Sandberg published her bestseller, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Since then, her book has inspired millions of women to achieve their ambitions and overcome workplace inequalities through its practical advice and wisdom.

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10 Top Diversity & Inclusion Questions Answered

We recently co-hosted an amazing webinar panel on Building a Diversity and Inclusion Program from Scratch. On it, our speakers Katee Van Horn, Shavonne Hasfal-Mcintosh, and Raena Saddler shared incredible advice and insights on a topic that is a top business priority for so many of us. They covered a lot ...

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