How to Avoid ‘Unconscious Bias’ When Hiring

How to Avoid ‘Unconscious Bias’ When Hiring

By: Greg Ford, CEO & Co-Founder of TalentClick

“When prejudice creeps into the hiring process, bad things happen,” says Danielle Bragge, President and Co-Founder of The Headhunters Inc. recruitment firm. Bragge has a blue chip list of clients, all of whom publicly promote the corporate initiatives of sustainability and diversity. But there’s a problem: “I’ve had frustrated clients tell me that those initiatives sound nice when you read the official statements,” says Bragge. “But in practice, some of their recruiters and hiring managers can be biased. And I’m not talking about morally reprehensible people actively engaging in outright discrimination based on age, gender, race, religion, and so on. Those are obvious no-no’s.” Instead, she says that what the employers are referring to is good people inadvertently letting smaller, non-obvious things impact their decision making, without them realizing it. This is what we call unconscious bias’, and, unfortunately, it can easily creep in. 

Unconscious bias is our deeply seeded prejudices about others—in a negative and positive way—and this can influence our everyday decisions, usually without us realizing it.


In an ideal world, a recruiter or hiring manager would evaluate an application based exclusively on the skills, experience, and credentials listed on the page. But, Bragge confirms that unconscious bias can start at the pre-screening stage with small details that otherwise might seem trivial. 

Some employers see an ethnic name, and in the back of their mind they might wonder how well the applicant can speak English. Or, if the applicant is a young woman, the hiring manager might, for a split second, envision the new hire going off on maternity leave. Or, the recruiter might notice the year when the person graduated from college and wonder if the candidate could be too old and set in their ways to fit into a younger, fast-paced culture. Applications can quickly get sorted into different piles based on our preconceived judgements. That’s the definition of prejudice.

An article in Fortune magazine highlighted the many new software tools available to help with pre-screening candidates. “Predictive algorithms and machine learning are fast emerging as tools to identify the best candidates,” writes journalist Jennifer Alsever.

However, use some of these tools with caution. Scanning a candidate’s social media for information about race, religion, sexual orientation, or political affiliation is illegal and can spark complaints of hiring discrimination. “It’s hard to unring the bell and prove that you didn’t use that information in an employment decision,” says Pamela Devata, a partner at employment law firm Seyfarth Shaw. “The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission assumes that if you accessed it, you used it.”


After pre-screening, the interview stage is yet another place for our biases to creep in, and it can be in a positive or negative way. In psychological terms, there is something called ‘confirmation bias,’ which means we usually make a judgement call about someone within the first minute of meeting them, and then unconsciously spend the next 59 minutes searching for information that confirms our preconception that the person is a good fit or bad fit for the job.

But, are our preconceptions and biases accurate? Not really, according to Yale professor Jason Dana who wrote an article in the New York Times that criticized job interviews as being harmful, “undercutting the impact of other, more valuable information about interviewees.” And the other, “more valuable” information is often those things which can be quantified.


To improve your hiring practices and reduce the effects of biases, we suggest doing a few simple things:

  1.   Have an administrator delete the names on the resumes before passing them along to the person doing the pre-screening and interviewing.
  2.   During pre-screening, standardize the process for rating applicants. Use a weighted points-scoring matrix based on quantifiable resume content. (Example:  5 points for a college degree, 9 points for more than 10 years of experience, 2 points for knowing a specialized computer skill, etc.) Here is a sample scoring matrix you can use. 
  3.   Implement a high-quality normative personality assessment. Here is a white paper to help you understand the difference between normative assessments (validated for employee selection) and ipsative assessments such as Myers-Briggs and DiSC (suitable for employee development and team building exercises). Ipsative assessments can potentially get you in trouble if you’re using one for hiring.
  4. When using a normative personality assessment, it’s a good idea to use one with benchmarked “ideal score ranges” based on objective data on high-performers in the same job position. (Click here to see more).  Scores against a benchmark should not be used as a pure ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ but rather as another factor in the overall decision making process. 
  5.   During interviewing, standardize the questions one can and cannot ask, and insist that interviewers take notes using a form.
  6.   Get input from others on the team. This helps reduce the biases that only one decision maker might have.


By implementing these practices, it will help you reach a number of admirable objectives including diversity and inclusion. A diverse workforce can provide these benefits:

  1. Adding new ideas and different perspectives
  2. Increasing team morale and employee engagement
  3. Enhancing your employer brand and attracting new employees
  4. Winning new business in different sectors or regions
  5. Better serving a diverse client base

“Some companies are now hiring outstanding new employees whom they might have previously passed over because of their biases.”

At The Headhunters, Bragge has helped some of her clients implement the best practices above and they have indeed seen many gains, some of which they had not expected. “Some companies are now hiring outstanding new employees whom they might have previously passed over because of their biases,” Bragge says. “Those managers aren’t bad people; they just needed a little help in overriding biases which, if we’re not careful, can affect all of us.”