Skip to content

How to (Actively) Tackle Unconscious Bias in Workplace Recruitment

It’s uncomfortable to believe that prejudice is part of human nature. But by admitting and addressing unconscious biases at work — the ones we may not even know we have — companies create a culture of conscious inclusion. Here’s how.

A test to help recruiters describing unconscious bias

Unconscious biases, also known as implicit biases, are assumptions and stereotypes that people unknowingly form about groups of people. These biases, no matter how back-of-mind, affect how people understand and engage with individuals in that group.

There’s a common, but powerful, example that goes:

A father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad. The son is rushed to the hospital; just as he’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate — that boy is my son!”

Immediately, our perceptions are challenged — in just two sentences. Why? Because our unconscious bias wants to believe the surgeon in question is a man; not a mother.

Psychology professor Angela Bell describes this bias as: “A well-worn footpath that you don’t know how the path became developed. You’ve been conditioned to behave that way.” 

So, how do these biases play out at work?

 unconscious bias in hiring and recruitment | line up of diverse team members
Click to Tweet

Reducing unconscious bias starts with your hiring process

Unconscious bias influences your hiring decisions when you judge a candidate — either favorably or unfavorably — based on criteria that’s irrelevant to the job.

We may find ourselves sorting resumes into yes and no piles based on the zip code a candidate lives in, whether their college basketball team beat yours one season, and even by their name.

Candidates with “white-sounding names” are 50% more likely to get called back for an interview than those with “black-sounding names.”

NBER Working Paper

Unconscious bias also comes up when recruiters hire for “culture fit” instead of “culture add.” Bias makes people more likely to hire candidates with similar interests, experiences, and backgrounds. For example, Silicon Valley tech companies are most likely to hire candidates who went to UC Berkeley than any other university.

Progressing in your career can also be blocked by bias. 

Women ask for promotions as often as men do, but they’re 18% less likely to receive those promotions than their male counterparts.

Lean In reports

When bias derails hiring and professional development, companies end up with homogenous teams and a lack of diversity. Those teams end up held back by groupthink: making decisions as a group in a way that prioritizes consensus over individuality.

Groupthink is a blocker to innovation — which may be why companies with above-average diversity produce a more significant proportion of revenue from innovation than companies with below-average diversity.

A culture of unconscious bias at work can harm employee happiness and engagement:

Employees who:

  • feel that they can “bring their whole selves to work” are 42% less likely to look for a new job.
  • feel welcome in their workplace take 75% fewer sick days and exhibit 50% lower turnover risk.
  • experience microaggressions are 3x more likely to think about leaving their jobs.

Plus, 64% of candidates say that diversity is an essential factor in accepting an offer. So when you build a diverse workforce, you’ll attract more diverse candidates.

How do you promote diversity, while doing away with unconscious bias for good? Conscious inclusion.

“Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.”

Diversity advocate Vernā Myers

Move from unconscious bias to conscious inclusion in three steps

Conscious inclusion happens when people actively work to change their attitudes and behaviors. To move from unconscious bias to conscious inclusion, it’s not enough to be aware of your unconscious biases — you need to consciously change the way you think and act.

Step 1: Acknowledge your unconscious bias

The first step in overcoming any bias is acknowledging that you have it. 

The Harvard Implicit Association Test is an excellent tool for identifying your own unconscious biases. Recruiters and HR managers should take the IAT and keep the results in mind throughout the employee lifecycle. Why are you putting that person up for promotion? Challenge your decisions, way beyond first impressions.

Remember, it can be hard to recognize the diversity issues that affect recruitment, hiring, performance, and retention in your business. Look for facts, evidence, and trends — rather than relying on opinion or gut feel. Better still, use employee surveys to hear what the experience is like from their side.

Step 2: Commit to making proactive change

Chances are, your workplace isn’t as diverse as it could be:

With a commitment to conscious inclusion, you can put the right, proactive initiatives and programs into place.

From a recruiting perspective, this may start with hiring diverse recruiters. A more diverse recruiting team can be less prone to groupthink and unconscious bias. Recruiters need to look at how a candidate can bring a new and valuable perspective to your team, rather than how similar they are to current employees.

Bias can also affect employee development and feedback. Behavioral Economist Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio explains

Annual evaluations are often subjective, which opens the door to gender bias (“Tom is more comfortable and independent than Carolyn in handling the client’s concerns”) and confirmation bias (“I knew she’d struggle with that project”).”

To counter this, set up objective criteria for promotions and salary increases. Make those criteria clear to employees and managers well before performance evaluations occur.

You can also set up regular training for employees and leadership to learn more about identifying and challenging their own biases.

Perhaps most importantly, stay honest. As you move toward conscious inclusion, be transparent with your employees and stakeholders. Keep them apprised of your diversity and inclusion goals, where your company stands, and how you plan to enact change.

Step 3: Use technology to remove natural bias

Humans are inherently biased. But technology can help minimize the effect of unconscious bias on your recruiting and hiring practices.

Machine learning and data science tools like Headstart’s Applicant Matching and Management System can help companies find high-potential employees to build a diverse, inclusive, and talented workforce — without the input of human bias.

AI-powered recruiting tools can help you find best-fit candidates and reject irrelevant applications. Headstart’s machine learning creates unique candidate-role fit scores — not letting gender, ethnic status, sexual orientation, or age get in the way.


Ready to build a diverse, high-performing team?

Organizations with inclusive cultures are 3x higher performing, 6x more innovative, and 8x more likely to achieve better business outcomes. 

Want to learn more about how Headstart can help your company overcome bias and move toward conscious inclusion? Book your free demo today.

Headstart is on a mission to transform the way organisations hire! We are the world's first diversity driven Applicant Matching and Management System. We use Machine Learning and Data Science to transform the recruitment process, enabling clients to find the right high potential employees regardless of gender, ethnic status, sexual orientation or age.

With major brands like Accenture publicly supporting our mission, Headstart is already improving the recruitment experience for candidates around the world.

Share This:

Get in touch

Get in touch to find out more and arrange a demo.