Article Business Practice

Unconscious bias in recruitment

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Whether we think so or not – we are all biased. Decisions we make about people are impacted by our unconscious bias without us even being aware of it. This can have consequences when we are recruiting people into the workplace as well as in appraisals, training and development, networking and mentoring.

Things we notice about a person when we meet them for the first time include their skin colour, age, gender and disability. Our experiences and influences (such as family, peers, media, education) lead us to unconsciously group people into categories which form the basis of stereotypes*, which can lead to prejudice and discrimination. Once we acknowledge our bias, we can take action to reduce its influence.

There are several types of unconscious bias which can strongly influence who we recruit. A couple of examples include:

Affinity bias: where you unconsciously favour someone because you share similar interests, backgrounds and experiences. We feel more comfortable around people who are like us.

Confirmatory bias: where we look for evidence / information that confirms our beliefs and values and we ignore evidence that disproves them.

When it comes to recruitment, examples of how our unconscious bias could influence our decisions include:

  • Employing someone who is not the most qualified;
  • Not recruiting people with differing views;
  • Following ‘status quo’ as a ‘safe’ option;
  • Not asking someone to interview due to a name not sounding ‘English’;
  • Not recruiting someone because they are not a good ‘cultural’ fit;
  • Assuming that a mother won’t be able to commit enough time to work;
  • Assuming an older worker will not be open to learning new skills.

If we want to create an inclusive environment where everyone can flourish, we must address unconscious bias.

There are a number of ways to reduce unconscious bias in recruitment:

  1. Define the job role;
  2. Redact information on the application form / CV that identify key characteristics of a person such as age, gender, ethnicity. This will remove unconscious bias while short listing potential candidates.
  3. Have a diverse hiring / interview panel.

Even by following these steps, it is unlikely that we will be completely unbiased.

Unconscious bias can sometimes be difficult to self-identify and to assist with that there is a test called the Implicit Association Test (IAT). The IAT measures the strength of associations between different groups of people and your immediate thoughts and unconscious stereotypes about those groups of people. The test’s purpose is to specifically highlight bias, this does mean that you may be confronted with some results that you may find upsetting or do not agree with; however, it can be a great method to understand your unconscious attitudes and beliefs.

You can take part in the anonymous test or learn more about it here:

*Stereotype: a fixed idea or image that many people have of a particular type of person or thing, but which is often not true in reality and may cause hurt and offence

Prepared on behalf of the Business Practice Working Group by Vivien Dent (Groundwater and Land Quality Technical Specialist, Green Growth and Delivery, Environment Agency) and Bradley Falcus (Senior Geo-Environmental Administrator, Central Alliance Pre-Construction Services Ltd)