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Beating Bias: Transforming Unconscious Biases into Conscious Behaviors within Talent Acquisition

Jennifer Sutton
By Jennifer Sutton
on October 01, 2016
Image credit: william87 via iStock

Biases. We've all got them, whether we like it or not, and, when it comes to talent acquisition, this can be a problem.

Unconscious biases - biases that people are unaware they possess - can impact and hinder the recruitment cycle. Everything from a candidate's name to their height or accent can influence your opinion of them, even if you aren't consciously aware of it.

The fact that these biases are unconscious makes detecting and then overcoming them challenging. But it can be done.

Blind orchestras

For a perfect example of overcoming unconscious biases, we can look at the music world. Back in the 1970s and 80s, several orchestras in the US implemented blind auditions. This involved candidates playing from behind a screen that prevented evaluators from being able to see them. They even went as far to ensure the floor was carpeted to make sure no tell-tale clicking of high heels could be heard. Since this process was introduced, the number of women in orchestras has jumped from just 5% to as high as 50% in some cases - proof that biases, conscious or not, had been limiting the number of women accepted into orchestras regardless of their actual ability.

So, what can we learn from this when it comes to talent acquisition? At Allegis Global Solutions (AGS), we aim to support our clients by working to overcome unconscious bias in all areas of the recruitment process, identifying possible biases and then working to implement effective means of overcoming them.

When it comes to resume assessment, we can take a direct lesson from the blind orchestra. By removing certain details from resumes, the chances of recruiters being affected by bias are reduced. After all, seeing a person's name alone can lead to you making a number of assumptions about them, such as their gender, ethnicity and social background etc. A new app, Blendoor, allows candidates and businesses to apply and recruit for jobs leveraging this 'blind' approach.

Tackling unconscious bias at the interview stage is a little more difficult. Interviews can be affected by a number of biases, including:

First impression bias - A snap judgment made upon first meeting a person
Similarity bias - Automatically assuming that someone is similar to yourself and judging them by this standard
Halo bias - Your overall impression of someone being influenced by an aspect of their character. For example, if you find a person attractive you are more likely to consider them in a positive light and overlook negatives
Time pressure bias - Your assessment of an individual is impacted by any time pressures you are currently experiencing
Contrast bias - Judging one individual based on how they compare to another, rather than against a wider base
Comparison bias - Basing hiring decisions on choosing candidates who do not compete with your own strengths

The first step to overcoming these unconscious biases is to carry out training to make sure that interviewers are aware of them. You can then focus on putting measures in place to counter these biases, such as:

Building rapport - Taking the time to build rapport during an interview helps you to get to know a candidate, reducing the likelihood of your opinion being based on first impressions or preconceived ideas
Taking notes - Capture notes on the interview so you have something to look back to when making your decision. This way your judgment is more likely to be based on the interview itself rather than any biases
Using neutral probes - Employ neutral language when asking questions, as leading questions generally contain an element of bias and will affect the sort of answer you're likely to receive
Giving neutral feedback - When responding to a candidate, use neutral language that demonstrates they have been heard and understood, but does not imply positivity or negativity

After the interview process, there are a number of questions recruiters should ask themselves to ensure bias does not creep into the decision-making process:

• Did you have a full conversation with all of the candidates?
• How are you marketing candidates to the hiring manager?
• Are you using better words or adjectives to position certain candidates in a more positive light?
• Are you stating the source of all candidates, or just diverse candidates?

Beating the unconscious bias

At AGS, we have an extensive network of partners and training modules that work to deliver unconscious bias training and technology to our clients. Examples of this include:

• Facilitate unconscious bias training to each team member within a specific client account
• Make use of blind hiring apps that can sit on an Applicant Tracking System (ATS) and remove names and any other information that indicates gender or a certain demographic
• Draw on Talentron to produce structured interview guides that help ensure candidates are being assessed equally and to reduce the chances of unconscious biases coming into play

A prime example of AGS helping a client overcome unconscious bias is our work alongside a leading financial services company. With a particular focus on training in this area during the onsite phase of implementation, our team produced 94% diverse slates by the end of the second quarter of this engagement for both gender and ethnicity respectively.

Bias is part of human nature and it's unlikely to ever be removed from the recruitment process entirely. However, by actively working to uncover and overcome unconscious biases you can significantly reduce their impact on your recruitment efforts, helping you to find the right talent for the job, regardless of their age, ethnicity or background. 

Download my whitepaper to learn about how AGS can help you create a diversity hiring strategy that delivers measurable results.

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Jennifer Sutton
Written by Jennifer Sutton

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