Where Unconscious Bias Creeps into the Recruitment Process

It happens to the best of us. Unconscious bias creeps into the recruitment process, and undermines our diversity and inclusion efforts. Everyone has unconscious bias. I do. You do. Your team does. What’s important is that we recognize that, and take intentional actions to overcome it. You don’t need to boil the ocean to make an impact. Start small. Take a look at your hiring data to determine where you should begin to optimize your recruitment process for diversity and inclusion. Perhaps you have very few applicants from underrepresented groups: try rewriting a few job descriptions each week and increasing your sourcing efforts. Or, perhaps your EEO data shows that candidates from underrepresented groups have great conversion rates from phone screen to interview, but that only a small percentage are receiving offers. You may need to consider implementing an interviewer training program. All companies have some opportunity for improvement, so we’ve provided some ideas below to get the wheels turning.

1. Writing the job description

Many job descriptions contain a laundry list of skills and qualifications that may be precluding great candidates from underrepresented groups. For example, men will apply for a job when they meet 60 percent of the qualifications, whereas women will apply only if they meet 100 percent of the qualifications. Unnecessary requirements, such as a bachelor’s degree from a university or work experience at a top company, can inadvertently attract a homogenous talent pool. So, too, can the language you use in your job descriptions. Words like “assertive” and “fearless” are masculine-coded, and words like “dependable” and “enthusiastic” are feminine-coded.

How to combat unconscious bias in your job descriptions:

Open yourself up to diversity of thought and untraditional candidates by rethinking your job descriptions. Lever uses impact job descriptions to focus on the outcomes the new hire would be expected to achieve, what they should already know, and what they should develop on the job. This attracts candidates who are capable of doing the job, without repelling those with a less-traditional career path for the given role. From there, check the wording in your job descriptions for gender-biased language, using a tool like this Gender Decoder or Textio.

2. Sourcing candidates

If you wait around for diverse candidates to come to you, you will likely fall short of your diversity goals. This can be particularly true for employee referrals. Employees tend to refer people similar to themselves. Their network consists of people they are friends with—who share similar ideas, backgrounds, and beliefs—and people with whom they have worked or attended school. Left unchecked, this could create a very homogenous workforce.

How to combat unconscious bias when sourcing:

It’s important to be intentional about building a diverse pipeline. Proactive candidate sourcing gives you the ability to control both the quality and diversity of talent you bring into your recruitment process. Many modern employee referral solutions even allow the option to source through your team’s network to uncover talented professionals from underrepresented groups.

3. Screening resumes

Resumes with white-sounding names received 50 percent more calls for interviews than identical resumes with black-sounding names. What’s more, a white-sounding name is equivalent to about eight more years of experience. Women face similar challenges: in a study of identical resumes, 79 percent of applicants with a man’s name were worthy of hire, versus only 49 percent of applicants with a woman’s name. These statistics don’t even account for unconscious biases related to schools, companies, addresses, area codes, and other details found on resumes.

How to combat unconscious bias during resume screening:

Blind resume screenings can be useful to minimize unconscious biases at this stage of the recruitment process. Determine which information is non-essential, and remove it from resumes prior to screening. Doing so manually could be labor-intensive, so work with a solution provider to maximize efficiency. Or, take a page out of KeepSafe’s book, and eliminate the resume altogether. Instead, they asked applicants to describe a project they recently built and were excited about. This put candidates on an even-playing field by allowing their work to speak for itself.

4. Interviewing

Both men and women think men are more competent and hirable than women, even when they have identical qualifications. Research has also shown that race impacts our perceptions of people’s competency. When law partners were given a mistake-laden memo to grade, lower scores were given when the partner thought the author was black. These false perceptions can quickly reduce the number of candidates from underrepresented groups in your pipeline.

How to combat unconscious bias during interviewing:

Before you source a single candidate, build an ideal candidate profile and a recruitment process that will help you suss out the most qualified candidates. Use a structured interview process, with behavioral interviewing questions, to ensure that each candidate is given a similar experience and evaluated against the same criteria. When determining whether the candidate fits those criteria, use specific examples from the interview to back them up. This will help limit the role of implicit bias in the decision-making process. Some companies are taking this a step further by offering Implicit Association Tests and unconscious bias training to employees.

Final thoughts

The road to overcoming unconscious bias will likely be different in every organization. Take a look at your own hiring data to uncover your greatest opportunities for improvement, and begin there. Set attainable, time-boxed goals for your organization to ensure you’re moving the needle in a meaningful way. For instance, make it a goal to source at least twenty candidates from underrepresented groups for every new role this month. Take notice of the small wins, and how they add up in a big way to help you increase the diversity of your workforce. And most importantly: never stop improving. Continually brainstorm and test new ideas that will help you build your dream team.


To learn more about overcoming unconscious bias and building a diverse team, get your free digital copy of The Diversity and Inclusion Handbook.