Types of Hiring Biases and How to Reduce Them
Making Too Many Wrong Hires? Bias May Be to Blame
Research has shown that—far too often—racism, sexism, ageism, and other worrying hiring biases creep into recruitment processes. Not only does it make the interviewing process unfair for candidates, it can negatively affect the quality of your hires and introduce some major risks to employers’ reputation and bottom line.
Let’s learn more.
What is Hiring Bias?
Let’s start with the basics.
Interviewer bias is when different, unfair standards are applied when evaluating people to hire (or promote) within a company or organization. It can lead to passing over high-potential candidates for lesser hires simply because of interviewer partiality.
Unfortunately, bias is quite common and pervasive, both in society and some recruitment processes. Prejudices sneak into the minds of those conducting job interviews, clouding judgement and negatively influencing decision making.
There are two types:
Conscious Hiring Bias
Sometimes interviewers can recognize their own (and/or others’) preference or dislike for certain kinds of individuals. They may even voice these conscious biases, which are also known as explicit biases.
Unconscious Hiring Bias
More often, bias creeps into the hiring process quietly, unexpectedly, and subconsciously. It’s what happens when you “trust your gut” or “follow your intuition,” ignoring important evidence and not exercising critical thinking. The beliefs stem from accepted stereotypes and/or personal past experiences. But these unconscious (or implicit) biases are usually deeply ingrained within an interviewer, so they’re harder to identify.
Hiring managers and recruiters need to evaluate candidates’ ability to do a job well—rather than rely on subjective assumptions. Thankfully, as we become more aware of these biases, we can start to challenge and change certain ways of thinking.
When Does Hiring Bias Arise?
Hiring bias can occur at any stage of the talent acquisition process—regardless of the selection process you choose. Some people think hiring bias only occurs when it’s time to make a job offer, but it usually occurs much sooner than that, and it frequently persists throughout each step.
Recruitment bias can pop up in the initial screening stages when candidates are dismissed based on information that appears on their resume. Certain names suggest or reveal a particular gender, race, and/or age bracket. We’ll dive deeper into this topic in the next section, but for now, understand this: if biased recruiters have a pre-set idea of what type of person they want to hire for a position (e.g., an older white man), other candidates (who may be more promising!) are often prematurely overlooked.
Of course, hiring bias also occurs at the interview stage.Hiring bias can arise in any interview format:
- Phone interviews (judging someone by the sound of their voice)
- Video interviews (pre-recorded or live)
- In-person interviews
What Types of Biases Exist?
Like people, biases come in many shapes and sizes. It’s a problem for every one of us. The first step to mitigating hiring bias—especially unconscious bias, which we know can be tricky to spot—is learning about the different kinds of biases we might encounter as HR professionals.
Oftentimes, recruiters or hiring managers are overconfident in their ability to pick a good candidate. This is when confirmation bias creeps in. Interviewers try to elicit answers that support their assumptions about candidates, jeopardizing the chances of finding the right person for the job.
Race and Ethnicity Bias
According to National Geographic, race is “usually associated with biology and linked with physical characteristics such as skin color or hair texture.” Ethnicity, on the other hand, is “linked with cultural expression and identification.” These social constructs are used to group seemingly distinct populations together—but too often that comes with negative consequences.
While we’d like to think our society has made tremendous strides in reducing racism, regrettably, some interviewers still judge people because of their race, nationality, ancestry, or place of origin. For example, research shows no change in the levels of discrimination against African Americans since 1989, documenting a “striking persistence of racial discrimination in U.S. labor markets.”
Natural Hair Bias
Race-based hair discrimination is another way people are missing out on job opportunities. Black people’s natural hair is often unfairly criticized by potential employers, especially in more conservative industries. The texture and/or style of ethnic hairstyles (afros, braids, dreadlocks) can be perceived as less professional than straightened hair. This type of hair bias stems from stereotypes that black hair in its natural state is somehow “dirty or unkempt,” which is of course not the case. In an effort to reduce this hair-based bias, lawmakers are starting to pass laws prohibiting discrimination against natural hairstyles for Black people at work.
Along the same lines as racial and ethnicity biases is name bias. This is when candidates are judged based on their name alone. It happens more frequently in the recruitment process than you might think.
In addition to missteps with race, name bias can also come into play when interviewers arbitrarily assign an assumed age to an applicant based on what appears on their resume. Names like Edith and Eugene bring to mind candidates in an older age bracket than Juniper or Jaxson.
Applicant names also often unintentionally reveal an applicant’s gender, which brings us to our next bias.
Gender bias is a preference or prejudice toward one gender over another. Gender itself is a nuanced topic full of complexities, and the spectrum of gender fluidity within society has changed over time.
At this point in time, widespread stereotypes cause some interviewers to mistakenly believe men are always better hires than women for certain positions, such as those involving math and science. Similarly, hiring committees may favor women for nurturing roles like nursing and teaching when men can be well-suited for these professions, too.
When it comes to gender stereotyping in recruitment, the odds are stacked against women. Women are still underrepresented in the workforce, particularly within certain industries such as jobs in IT.
Although interviewers cannot legally ask candidates if they are pregnant (or plan to have children), women often face pregnancy discrimination throughout their career, too.
Women also typically make less than male counterparts—and that’s when they’re successful in landing work.
Sexual Orientation Bias
The LGBTQ2+ abbreviation (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, and two-spirited) covers many types of sexual orientations and gender identities. The plus-sign at the end signifies there are even more types of sexual orientations.
Research shows 5.1 percent of US women identify as LGBTQ+ as do 3.9 percent of US men, and roughly 1.4 million adults in the United States identify as trans. The LGBTQ2+ community is an ever-growing segment of the workforce.
And although the US Supreme Court made discrimination against workers based on their gender identity or sexual orientation illegal, employment discrimination laws vary between states. Nearly half of the U.S. LGBTQ population lives in a state that still doesn’t prohibit employment discrimination because of sexual orientation and gender identity.
While a person’s sexual orientation has no correlation to how well someone can perform on the job, some interviewers still have prejudices against applicants based on an actual or assumed sexual orientation. Openly gay job applicants in some industries are as much as 40% less likely to receive job interviews than their heterosexual counterparts. Black trans women have a particularly hard time finding work.
Whether an applicant is heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, or asexual, it shouldn’t matter so long as the candidate has the necessary skills to do the job well.
Even when people in the LGBTQ2+ community secure employment, they face unique challenges in the workplace, including:
- The painful experience of being misgendered, or referred to by a pronoun that does not correspond with their gender identity.
- Continually having to come out at work. Nearly half of LGBTQ+ respondents reported having to do this at least once a week.
- Stigmatized family identity and the absence of a comprehensive benefits package for same-sex partners. Many feel conflicted about whether to bring partners to work events or take advantage of family-related benefits for fear of revealing their same-sex relationship.
- Substantial barriers to advancement. LGBTQ2+ individuals are far more likely to be in entry-level positions and report that they’ve missed out on a raise, promotion, or chance to get ahead.
Age (or generational) bias in the hiring process involves making unfair assumptions about someone based on their actual or assumed age. This bias is especially common in the technology industry where interviewers tend to believe that older people can’t possibly be as tech-savvy as younger people.
But both boomers and millennials face the potential for age bias.
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) of 1967 is a federal law that prohibits discrimination against employees and applicants aged 40 or older in the United States. While that was a great step forward in fighting age-related bias, unfortunately examples of ageism in the workplace are still rampant. Furthermore, the ADEA does not legally protect anyone 39 or below, leaving young people on the opposite side of age discrimination at risk.
More than four decades after the ADEA became law, nearly two-thirds of workers aged 55 to 64 report that their age is a barrier to getting a job. Older individuals, despite having loads of experience, may be passed over because they’re nearing the age of retirement. They are often on the receiving end of age-related comments or jokes in the workplace. Lapses in memory, which of course occasionally happen to all of us, can be exaggerated and seen as senility. And ageism is still vastly underreported: only 3% of older employees have ever made a formal complaint.
Age bias can be very difficult to prove because it usually comes out in the subtleties of language. While it’s illegal, the payout is typically not very big as this is a sort of “accepted bias.” As a culture, we tend to be overly forgiving of this form of discrimination. But this bias presents plenty of danger from a recruitment perspective.
The hiring biases listed above are among the most common, most damaging biases within talent acquisition teams.
Automation bias is a phenomenon that occurs when people give undue weight to technologically-created information (such as artificial intelligence). When predictions, numerical scores, or rankings are presented as precise and objective because they’re “computer-generated,” recruiters may give them more weight than they truly warrant.
Religious discrimination involves treating applicants unfavorably because of their religious beliefs or spiritual observances. Religion should never factor into hiring decisions. Make an effort to separate church and cubicle.
Interviewers often gravitate toward hiring people with whom they have something in common. Perhaps a member of the recruitment team lived in the same city, went to the same school, or know the same people as an applicant, so they unfairly rate them higher than other candidates.
Part of this is human nature; people want to belong, so they tend to hire candidates who are like them. But this limits diversity in the workplace. Commonality bias creates a “personality silo” where skills become secondary to personality fit, limiting diversity in the workplace.
Conformity bias occurs when interviewers unknowingly change their mind to side with the majority of people. For example, if four out of five interviewers all say candidate #3 was by far the strongest applicant, oftentimes the outlier (depending on how impressionable they are) will agree #3 is the best fit for the position—even when they originally preferred someone else—just to fit in.
Beauty (or handsome) bias, also known as “lookism,” comes into play when interviewers subconsciously believe how a person looks affects how they will perform in the job. Conventionally attractive people tend to get hired and promoted more easily than unattractive people, despite not necessarily being the best candidates for the position.
The halo effect comes into play when an interviewer becomes biased by certain positive things about a candidate that have no bearing on their ability to do a job well. Because of this, the interviewer will disregard red flags and focus too much on a particular aspect of an applicant, such as where they went to university or an old award they received once upon a time.
The horn effect is the opposite of the halo effect. It comes into play when interviewers cannot move past something they perceive as “negative” (but unrelated to the job) about an applicant. Maybe the candidate has visible tattoos or piercings. Perhaps they have the same name as an ex partner from a relationship that ended poorly. These are just a couple examples of the horn effect leading recruiters to skip over candidates who would otherwise be deserving of an interview.
Disability discrimination is when individuals with “a disability, perceived disability, or association with a disabled person” are treated differently than other candidates for that reason. Differently-abled job applicants may be in a wheelchair or have an amputated limb, but remember: not all disabilities are easy to spot. Consider visual disabilities, auditory disabilities, and learning disabilities, for example. 62% of white-collar, college-educated employees with disabilities identified their disability as “invisible.”
—Claire Odom, Senior Program Manager, Understood
The Dangers of Hiring Bias
Hiring managers and recruiters frequently (but mistakenly) rely on their intuition to make hiring and promotion decisions. When left unchecked, these biases shape and limit not only the workforce, but also the entire company culture. When bias enters into hiring decisions, it can cost you time, money—and your company’s reputation.
Potential Legal Consequences
Perhaps the most obvious—and the potentially the most damaging to your company—are the legal consequences of biased hiring practices. Biased interviews leave your business wide open to an expensive lawsuit.
After all, some biases aren’t only frowned upon; they’re illegal. Laws vary depending on location, but large countries such as the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia have all taken steps to protect job applicants from employment discrimination. These “protected groups” may be based on race, religion, sex, age, disability or other candidate characteristics. Or, they can protect certain statuses, as in the case of protected veterans.
Negative Brand Reputation
Biased hiring decisions can damage your brand’s reputation. If your company hires someone who is unfit for the position because of interviewer bias, the general public may see the brand in an undesirable light. The wrong hire may be rude or indifferent to customers, who then tell their friends, creating a negative feedback loop.
Discourages Top Talent from Applying
If your company has developed a reputation of biased hiring, this can discourage high-performing talent from applying for current and future positions. Good employees are tough to come by and your company is doing nothing to help promote itself and attract well-qualified people if it doesn’t make proactive efforts to minimize bias.
Bias often leads to hiring the wrong people, increasing turnover rates. Whether the employee chooses to leave on their own or HR needs to fire them, losing staff wastes valuable time and money that would be better spent growing the right employees.
Hiring the wrong people can negatively impact sales, reducing the company’s bottom line. So, if profit is part of the reason your company is in business, then you need to take a serious look at bias in your recruitment process.
Lack of Diversity
When bias increases, diversity tends to decrease. And that’s bad for business. One-dimensional workforces where everyone who’s hired is the same are not as successful as employers with diverse teams. We’ve got a lot more to say about the importance of workplace diversity, so let’s jump in.
Why Promote Diversity in the Workforce
There’s a dotted line between bias and diversity. Hiring bias can negatively affect even the best laid DEI plans of your organization.
DEI, which stands for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, is now a common term among HR professionals. DEI efforts aim to make hiring processes more equitable, accessible and inclusive. They seek to remove barriers and favorable treatment, championing human rights and dignity.
Diversity – Diversity encourages representation and participation of diverse groups of people. While characteristics like race, age, and gender jump to mind, diversity includes all the things that make people unique: our personalities, backgrounds, skill sets, interests, perspectives, and more.Diverse workforces can offer:
- A variety of different perspectives
- A wider range of skill sets
- Opportunities for innovation and creative problem solving
- More employee engagement
- Increased job satisfaction
- Lower turnover
- Improved public perception
Equity – Equity promotes justice, impartiality, and fairness within HR processes to ensure everyone has access to the same treatment and advancement opportunities.
Inclusion – Inclusion is about trying to make each person feel valued and welcomed. Inclusive recruiting practices help create a positive candidate experience, setting the tone for what future employment might look like.An important note about equity:
Many people mistakenly use the words ‘equity’ and ‘equality’ interchangeably. Equality means giving everyone the exact same resources and opportunities, whereas equity involves distributing resources and opportunities based on the needs of the recipients. After all, some job applicants and employees need more support than others. This graphic attempts, not without fault, to illustrate the difference.
There are many reasons why organizations promote workplace diversity. Interestingly, compliance is rarely cited as one of those reasons.
Diverse workforces are more representative of the human race as a whole. They offer lots of value for employers and employees alike, including:
More employee engagement and creative problem solving
59% increase in creativity, innovation, and openness
Improved public perception
Organizations with inclusive cultures and practices are 58% more likely to improve their reputations.
2/3 of workers cite diversity as an important factor when considering a new organization.
Employees on diverse, inclusive teams typically have a heightened sense of belonging and higher levels of job satisfaction. This often leads to staff retention, so hiring teams save time and money from reduced turnover.
DEI certainly isn’t a “fluff metric.” DEI efforts help foster high levels of productivity, which can contribute to increased revenue and better shareholder returns. A study from McKinsey & Company found evidence that suggests diversity correlates with better financial performance.
The bottom line is this: DEI helps attract top talent and keep your hires happy. Millennials place an even higher value on diversity and inclusion than previous generations, so as we build the workforces of the future, we must be mindful of ways to appeal to young job seekers.
Employers everywhere have recognized the many benefits of diversifying their teams, and they’re taking action—starting with overcoming bias in the recruitment process.
Ways to Overcome Hiring Bias
Okay, we get it. Hiring bias is bad, and a diverse, inclusive workplace is good. But how can we reduce hiring bias so we can increase workplace diversity?
#1. Offer Awareness Training
Remember: biases are often unconscious. So, help those involved in the recruitment process become more aware of the common hiring biases you’ve learned here. Awareness training brings biases to the surface, allowing people to more easily identify subjective thinking when it pops up during interviews. Once people are aware of their personal biases, they are better prepared to challenge them.
You may also want to consider making recurring EDI training mandatory for hiring managers and recruiters. Since some elements of EDI are incredibly nuanced and easy to miss, try to educate staff about insensitivities, microaggressions, and microinvalidations. These can derail recruitment processes—even those with the best intentions.
#2. Ask Candidates to Perform Skills Tests
Another way to reduce bias in the recruitment process is to ask applicants to complete a skills test. This step is often done even before interviewing because it helps set an objective standard in the early stages of hiring. Consider hiding applicant names during initial screening as blind assessments help reduce name bias.
Skills tests relate directly to the type of tasks involved in the day-to-day job, allowing the candidate to prove that they have what it takes to succeed in the position. It also helps employers critique the quality of candidates’ responses rather than judging them by factors that do not relate to their ability to do the job well.
#3. Involve Multiple People in the Hiring Process—And Document Their Ratings
Try to create a diverse hiring committee, ideally one that includes one or more interviewers from underrepresented groups. Ideally, you want applicants to see people who look like them already working for the organization, helping them feel welcome. Some organizations are adopting this best practice from the top down by hiring a Chief Diversity Officer.
Getting multiple peoples’ opinions helps mitigate the possibility of similarity bias. Interviewers will likely have different interests and backgrounds, so some will have more in common with the candidate than others.
Since hiring stakeholders often have different ways of thinking, some organizations will ask interviewers to rate only one interview answer for each applicant. This practice can help diversify the evaluation and add more visibility into potential recurring bias by spotting rater trends.
Remember: recorded video interviews can serve as a permanent record of your hiring process history. By reviewing these videos, one can more easily assess patterns and spot recurring bias from interviewers in order to address it.
#4. Create Standardized Questions
Before interviewing job applicants, take time to specify exactly what questions you want to ask. What are you hoping to find out about the aptitude of interviewees? What skills are needed for each specific position? Your questions should only relate to the core competencies of the job.
Standardized questions should be asked to all applicants. Not only should every candidate be asked the exact same questions, they should be asked in the same way and in the same order every time. This ensures all candidates receive the same interview experience, minimizing bias.
#5. Establish Fair, Repeatable Scoring Criteria
To maximize the chances of candidates being evaluated fairly and consistently, clearly define metrics that will be used to assess people’s suitability for different job positions. Rank the selection criteria, establish expectations with committee members, and ensure everyone is using the same evaluation matrix.
By making sure everyone is using the same scoring baseline, it helps reduce bias and favoritism. Static competency-based hiring criteria, which is the basis of structured interviews, is an important part of making an apples-to-apples comparison between potential hires.
How to Hire for Diversity with Structured Digital Interviews
Thankfully, the interview process can be intentionally designed to minimize common hiring biases.
Steps #4 and #5 in the section above combine to create a standardized interview process. Also known as a structured interview, it’s a quantitative research method that’s far more objective than its unstructured counterparts. Structured interviews make it much less likely for interviewers to ask off-topic questions that have nothing to do with the job, minimizing hiring bias.
When administered correctly, structured interviews have a 0.51 hiring predictiveness rate—better than any other predictor of employment success. It’s 100% a hiring best practice, yet, it can be challenging for HR teams to adopt standardized interviews, especially when hiring stakeholders are spread out and working remotely.
A structured interview methodology—especially one that has been digitized for easy adoption within video interviewing software—is the secret to improving your recruitment and increasing your diversity hires.
Progressive technology is paving the way to smarter, more objective, legally-defensible hiring decisions. Structured digital interviews help mitigate personal biases and double your odds of hiring the right person for the job. They also leave a data trail that can help identify if interviewers are consistently making biased hiring decisions.
– Georg Peitchev, human resources specialist, UNDP
Future Proofing Unfair Hiring Practices
As we’ve learned, hiring bias and workforce diversity are complicated, ever-evolving topics. There’s lots to unpack, and what we’ve just skimmed the surface of all the complexities surrounding recruitment bias. There’s plenty more to discuss, more opinions to gather, and more work to do.
One thing’s for certain: we must keep the conversation going.
We’ll never manage to minimize bias and achieve diverse workplaces by staying silent when we notice injustices. Empower people to speak up if inappropriate comments or jokes are made throughout the hiring process. Try to recognize stereotyping and potential prejudice in yourself and those you work with. We must collectively work to create greater awareness about hiring bias so we can minimize its negative influence.
If your organization wants to be truly invested in diversity, it starts with rethinking your recruitment process.It’s time to take the leap from intention to action.