Unconscious Biases That Surprisingly Limit Recruitment

Get Past Your Unconscious Biases to Hire Better, More Qualified Employees

Be aware that unconscious bias can affect who we interview and select when recruiting and hiring employees.
••• Rick Gomez / Getty Images

. No one could be more surprised about this than me.” This is how Kristen Pressner, the Global Head of Human Resources for a multinational firm, began her TEDx talk. That’s exactly what you don’t want, right? An HR leader with a bias against anyone.

But, as Pressner points out, she had an unconscious bias. She noticed this when she realized she’d treated a male staff member’s request to look at his compensation differently than the same request from a female staff member’s identical request.

She had always thought of herself as a champion for women in leadership but realized at that moment that she behaved differently than she thought she would. Likely, you’re the same about an unconscious bias.

What Is Unconscious Bias?


“Implicit or unconscious bias happens by our brains making incredibly quick judgments and assessments of people and situations without us realizing. Our biases are influenced by our background, cultural environment, and personal experiences. We may not even be aware of these views and opinions, or be aware of their full impact and implications.”

Everyone comes to the table with unconscious biases, and they can dramatically affect how you recruit and hire, without you ever knowing that these unconscious biases are affecting your decisions.

How Unconscious Bias Affects Resume Screening

Most recruiters spend less than a minute before either rejecting a resume or deciding to give it further study.

That quick review means that our unconscious biases are at play.

A famous 2003 study called “ A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination” found that people with typical “Black” names were far less likely to get a response to a resume than a person with a typical “White” name.

That was a long time ago, though, and perhaps things have changed. They have, but not definitively. but there’s a strong caveat: they changed the first names in the study. They used Washington and Jefferson as last names for the Black candidates, Anderson and Thompson for the White candidates, and Garcia and Hernandez for the Hispanic candidates.

But, the first names for the White and Black candidates were popular names in the White community (Megan and Brian for the White candidates and Chloe and Ryan for the Black candidates).

So, did the bias really disappear, or do people just not know that 90 percent of “Washingtons” and 75 percent of “Jeffersons” are Black? The Hispanic candidates, however, had solidly Hispanic first names: Isabella and Carlos. The study didn’t find any resume discrimination against the Hispanic candidates, as compared to White candidates.

But, race isn’t the only potential bias for which you subconsciously screen. Age and gender are also subject to our unconscious biases.

A candidate with 30 years of experience listed on her resume is most likely older than a candidate with five years of experience. A person with a college degree from 1982 is most likely older than one with a degree from 2013.

A Jennifer is almost guaranteed to be female while a Steven is almost guaranteed to be male. Even without dates, you can guess that Jennifer is older than Emma, based on the popularity of the name at different times.

Unconscious Biases in Interviewing

“Boy, she’s really aggressive, isn’t she?”

“He’s confident about his skills! I loved how he challenged us!”

You can make these two statements about two candidates who behaved in a very similar manner, but you may expect different things from men and women.

When a candidate comes in and is very obviously overweight, do you subconsciously wonder if she’s lazy?

When a candidate comes in with a wheelchair, do you wonder how she’ll keep up with your fast-paced workflow?

Your unconscious biases influence how you see and interpret everything a candidate says or does.

You need to consider the candidate who sits in front of you and not allow your own history and experiences to affect your judgment.

How to Fix Your Unconscious Biases

It’s impossible to remove yourself from your history and your culture, of course, but recognizing your biases is the first step. Pressner came up with a solution that is quite effective. She calls it “Flip it to test it.”

If you call a female candidate aggressive for bargaining hard on salary, flip it to test if you’d assign that same description to a hard-bargaining male. If you think, “boy that overweight person must be lazy,” flip it to test it. If you wouldn’t automatically assume a skinny person was lazy, then it’s your biases creeping in.

If you say, “We need to hire more women” flip that and say “we need to hire more men.” If that last phrase sounds sexist, you know that the first statement is sexist as well.

This test isn’t limited to race and gender stereotypes. “This candidate must be better than the other one because she attended Harvard and the other went to Ohio State.” Flip that and think about it.

Yes, you know that a candidate who went to Harvard had minimum academic qualifications but you have no idea if the Ohio State candidate had the same academic qualifications and made a different choice. You also don’t have any idea whether academic qualifications, degrees, or choice of institution make either candidate good at the job you are hiring to fill.

If you let your unconscious biases influence your decision making, you’ll miss out on a lot of great candidates and run the risk of hiring an employee who checks all of your right biases boxes but can’t do the job.