3 Unconscious and Blind Biases of the Hiring Process

3 Unconscious and Blind Biases of the Hiring Process

Hiring the right people is crucial to the success of your business. It is also one of the most difficult tasks of business operations. We are taught that things like the amount of education, the prestige of the school, the applicant’s past roles and specifics about their former responsibilities are what makes the ideal candidate. But what if those things aren’t important at all?

What if you could toss that resume in the trash – and find even better employees for your business?

That’s the premise of a practice that some businesses are using, called “blind hiring.” Companies that use blind hiring – including Compose Inc., which was featured in a recent Wall Street Journal story on the topic – don’t ask for resumes. Instead, blind hiring relies on tests of the candidate’s abilities, including writing, interpreting data, completing assignments and working on mock projects. Other companies don’t fully use blind hiring, but they are finding ways to incorporate more anonymity into their interviewing and hiring processes.

The Weaknesses of Traditional Hiring Practices

So what’s wrong with the traditional method of using resumes and interviews to find employees? Researchers say these practices allow unconscious bias to slip in, where a candidate is chosen based on the attitudes or stereotypes of the person hiring – not on the objective facts about the candidate or their ability to handle the job.

Uncovering Bias in the Hiring Process

Once again, bias in the hiring process is typically unconscious – you are not knowingly using stereotypes or irrelevant information to choose a candidate, but in the traditional hiring process your unconscious biases are better able to seep in.

Three main biases impacting the hiring process are:

Implicit Bias

People use categories to make sense of the world, for example, male and female. However, with categorization comes the association of stereotypes, and this bias can come out in the hiring process whether you realize it or not.

There have been many studies on implicit bias. Some findings include:

  • Lower verbal skills ratings when the evaluator is told the writing is from an African American candidate.
  • Women being perceived as less competent leaders despite their accomplishments.
  • Job applicants with “white-sounding names” more likely to be interviewed than those with “African-American-sounding”
  • Male applicants receiving better evaluations than female applicants, even though they have similar skill levels.

Once again, these studies find that implicit biases impact decisions even when comparing people of equivalent skill level or background. Gender and race are the most documented and researched implicit biases. Ethnicity can also lead to implicit bias (for example, the stereotype that all people from India are good at math may cause you to look more favorably on an Indian candidate for a math-intensive job). Implicit biases may also cause us to view candidates that took alternative routes (such as online courses) as less capable than candidates that take traditional routes without fully evaluating their skills.

Confirmation Bias

A confirmation bias is when a person goes into the hiring or interview process with pre-conceived beliefs about a candidate – and then continues to seek out information that confirms that belief throughout the interview process.

For example, seeing on the resume that a candidate attended an elite school may cause pre-conceived beliefs about the person’s intelligence and ability. During the interview, the interviewee will unconsciously look for clues that align with these beliefs and look over clues that disprove it.

Perhaps one of the most common forms of confirmation bias is when the candidate was recommended or referred by a colleague or friend. The connection with the referrer, along with the positive things they say about the candidate, can cause the interviewer to form pre-conceived beliefs about the candidate and then unconsciously seek out confirmation of these beliefs during the interview.

Similarity-Attraction Bias

This psychological hypothesis says that we are drawn to and favor people who are similar to us. For example, you may quickly develop rapport with someone who has the same haircut, is dressed similarly to you, has a similar background, played the same sport, or came from the same state.

Similarity-attraction bias will cause you to hire people like yourself over and over again. Although this may not sound like a bad idea (after all, you’re a competent and skilled person!), research suggests that associating with people who are different from you can make you work harder, think more creatively and act more diligently. In terms of business, this means that diversity is an important key to success.

The problem with these biases is that they do not help you locate the best person for the job. Compose Inc. chief executive Kurt Mackey recognized the problems of bias in his own hiring processes. According to him, the company was “hiring people who were more fun for us to talk to” then later finding out they were a poor fit for the job.

Blind Hiring – A Better Solution?

Hiring biases are pretty well documented in research. They are unconscious – so even if you are thinking that they don’t apply to you, these unconscious biases likely play out from time to time in your daily life, including the hiring process.

Blind hiring seeks to eliminate these biases by eliminating the resume and sometimes not even being able to see the candidate. For example:

  • Making the entire process based on ability through a series of tests or sample projects like they will experience on the job.
  • Inviting candidates to take a challenge, then inviting the top performers on interviews.
  • Removing specific information from the resume – for example, the school the candidate attended, or their name.
  • Making the interview more anonymous, for example by using chat rooms to conduct the interview.

Regarding making interviews more anonymous, when U.S. orchestras changed their audition policies in the 1970s to include “blind auditions” (where musicians performed behind a curtain), the percentage of women selected rose significantly. The continued use of this “blind audition” policy means women musicians in orchestras have increased from 5 percent in the 1970s to 25 percent today.

Today’s companies who are using blind hiring are similarly looking to increase the diversity of their workforce. Blind hiring can help them choose the people who are truly the best fit for the job – not the people that conform to their unconscious biases.

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