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How to Mitigate Unconscious Bias in Recruitment – Where Interviews Go Wrong

Why aren’t more women in the boardrooms of major corporations? Why don’t more African-Americans work in the burgeoning tech industries? When asked, companies often claim a lack of qualified candidates. However, many of these companies might consider the lesson that orchestras across the nation learned in decades past – unconscious bias in recruitment may play a role. 

Prior to the 1970s, 95% of orchestra members were white men. Orchestras told themselves their members were chosen by fair auditions and judged on their technical merit. But what auditioning reforms that followed taught us was that even highly experienced judges have difficulty seeing past their deeply ingrained biases. After introducing blind auditions, orchestras hired significantly more women. Female orchestra members shot up from 5% to 20% very rapidly. These numbers continue to climb. Today 25-30% of orchestra members are women.

The science of conscious and unconscious bias

As much as we like to think we are objective judges, that’s just not how our brains work. When we learn things, such as racist or sexist stereotypes, that information is always with us whether we like it or not. Our subconscious mind activates these stereotypes whenever we interact with individuals for whom we ever learned these stereotypes, and biases our interpretations of the interaction.

Research proved that identical resumes that revealed a candidate’s race (candidate’s name was “Greg”, or “Lakeesha”), led to significant discrimination. “Greg” received 50% more interview requests than the equally qualified “Lakeesha”.

Even if “Lakeesha” received an interview, research finds bias (whether conscious bias or unconscious bias) can lead interviewers to be less warm or to ask questions that confirm negative stereotypes. In other words, unconscious bias in recruitment can lead us to sabotage a person’s interview, a phenomenon psychologists call “the self-fulfilling prophecy”.

What can you do about unconscious bias in recruitment?

While overt forms of hiring discrimination can be quite costly to companies, more subtle forms can be harder to prove in court. These may protect companies financially, but not from reputational damage. So, here’s what you can do to combat unconscious bias in recruitment:

1. Interviewer Training: Overall, research finds training interviewers increases the quality of their hiring decisions. However, this does NOT seem to extend to reducing hiring discrimination. So training is beneficial unless bias is the primary concern.

2. Interview Structure: Human Resource departments often turn to panel interviews to mitigate any one individual’s unconscious bias. Research is mixed on whether or not it helps. On the plus side, this same research finds candidates tend to feel panel interviews are fairer.

3. Standardizing the interview: Research is more clear that standardized interviews (e.g., same interviewer(s), same interview questions) lead to better hiring decisions. The more standardized the interview, the less any interviewer(s) biases can lead to bias-confirming questions.

Need help with this? Cangrade’s Structured Interview Guide can craft the most effective interview for you.

4. Screening and Accountability: Ultimately, the orchestras had a very effective solution: Deny the information needed to discriminate. For as long as possible in the hiring process, decision-makers should be blind to potentially biasing information (race, gender, etc). So, remove photos and names from materials and change potentially identifying information (“President of the Black Students Union” becomes “President of a student organization”). Research finds the most effective way to reduce hiring discrimination is to make someone specifically responsible for reducing discrimination.

Unconscious bias in recruitment and discrimination in the hiring process persist because too many people assume “I would never do that”. Our subconscious mind might be preventing us from seeing the value of all our applicants. However, with some careful planning, the interview process can lead you to the right candidate.