Reducing Unconscious Bias in Job Descriptions & Interviews

Published: 16/08/2014

Everyone has individual biases, which are determined by factors such as social environment, upbringing and culture. However, when it comes to the recruitment selection process, these prejudices play a huge part and can at times lead to organisations missing out on key talent.

While those involved in the hiring process might be aware of a few conscious biases they have, it’s those they are not aware of – the unconscious biases – that pose the highest risk. This is something that needs to be addressed by all involved in recruitment, from HR professionals and recruiters, right through to line managers. When hiring, the end goal is simply to get the best talent on board to help the business grow. However, if unconscious bias is a factor, it can lead to a lack of diversity, and potentially a lack of top talent, in your workforce.

In order to prevent this loss of talent from your organisation, it is important to recognise that everyone needs to be involved in addressing the issue throughout the recruitment stage. Research shows that unconscious bias takes place at all levels, from creating the job description right up to the interview.

We can’t find the women! Yes you can if you remove recruitment bias

 Women’s Agenda, May 19, 2014 

When Women’s Agenda ran this editorial about how women had a better chance of getting trade employment if they used a man’s name on their application, I retweeted it with approval. Cam’s experience when she shortened her name reinforced a lot of research about how recruitment is influenced by conscious or unconscious bias.

I was surprised to see feedback asking if we recommended women change their names to get work. Of course, the thing that has to change is how employers make recruitment decisions.

In 2011, Anglo American’s Australian Coal business launched new advertisements in metropolitan newspapers to attract more women to the resources industry. It was part of a campaign to create a more diverse and inclusive work environment in a traditionally male-dominated industry. And it is working, raising the proportion of women working in Anglo American by 32 per cent.

Recruitment is where it starts. You might (or might not) be surprised how often we hear employers say they’d like to have greater diversity, but when they are recruiting, “there are just no women available”.

It’s true that the percentage of women graduating from disciplines like engineering and IT remains relatively low. And it’s true that there are significantly more men than women with senior line or operational experience in some sectors. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Anglo American didn’t buy it, so they looked at their own practices to see why women had not been entering the organisation, and proactively addressed a range of structural and cultural challenges.

When we think ‘talent’, what is the automatic picture that comes to mind, especially for engineering, technical, or leadership roles? Is it someone male, from an Anglo background? Are we cutting out talented people before we even open the door?

If you’ve heard “there just aren’t women who want to work here”, or perhaps said it yourself, remember Cam’s story. Consider that research has shown consistently that when people evaluated CVs that were identical except for the gender of the applicant, the male candidate was significantly more likely to be hired, paid more and offered more support, by both men and women recruiters.

And it’s not just gender. A 2009 Irish study found that candidates with Irish names were twice as likely to be interviewed as those with “identifiably non-Irish” names, even when their CV were otherwise identical.

That’s because recruitment, like most people processes, is prone to bias.

Professor Binna Kandola and Jo Kandola, authors of The Invention of Difference: the story of gender bias at work, say:
• We tend to hire in our own image, selecting people who are like us
• Criteria for senior management jobs often include phrases that equate to stereotypically male attributes (e.g. ‘competitive’, ‘relentless focus’, ‘necessary gravitas to work with equally ambitious and driven people’)
• The gender of the person currently in a role influences who is seen as most suitable
• Candidates are less likely to be hired if they behave in a way that is inconsistent with gender stereotypes, or if they want to work flexibly.

What can we do to take the bias out of recruitment?

If organisations try even one of these ideas, there’s a good chance of achieving a more diverse list of candidates:
• Use inclusive language and imagery in employment advertisements/external branding
• Brief agencies and search firms on your commitment to diversity, requiring them to report diversity of candidate pools, shortlists, interviewees and hires
• Ensure candidate pools are not sourced only from referrals
• Use ‘blind’ CVs with names and demographic data redacted
• Provide unconscious bias awareness training to hiring managers.

This helps ensure that you aren’t restricting yourself to one familiar demographic, but are drawing from as wide a talent pool as possible.

Rebecca Capper, Anglo American’s Diversity Specialist, says recruitment is the first step towards lasting change. “Our challenge as an industry is to retain and develop the talented women who have chosen the resources industry to build their career, so they progress to senior positions and bring about effective change to help our industry evolve and become fundamentally inclusive.”

See it online

Tools & Solutions

Analyze ads for subtle biases in language, in criteria, and in how you describe your workplace
Checklist to reduce bias in job descriptions by National Center for Women in Information Technology
Tips on how to improve job description 
* 8 Ways to eliminate hiring bias during interviews
Objective method to reduce bias in appraisals
Reducing Bias through behavioural interviewing

List to an unconscious bias library based on gender: List 1 | List 2