There’s Nothing to Fear – Overcoming Bias in Recruitment

by | Oct 29, 2019

It’s Halloween and children and adults around the country are dressing up, painting their faces, making themselves unrecognisable in costumes, acting out characters, carving pumpkins and generally being scary

Some love it, some hate it, and some are just not bothered. That’s because we are all different! Our brain processes and stores information, leading us to make our own unique assessments and judgements about situations, about people and about our environment. 

We may have unhappy associations with Halloween costumes and ‘trick or treating’, which we formed when we were children; or we may dislike scary stuff; or we may just think people who dress up are weird? It’s all part of the way our brains work and how our conscious and unconscious thoughts and biases have formed over time.

Did you know that our unconscious mind processes 200,000 times more information than our conscious mind? This leads to information overload. To cope, we constantly sift, sort and make sense of the information we receive, using short cuts and patterns to find associations and familiarity. We form neural pathways to help us, so that the next time we are faced with this type of information we can deal with it quickly.  

We are naturally programmed to survive, and our brains protect us by providing us with the instinct for fight or flight. We look for signs that we can TRUST, to make us feel safe and to help us move forward. When we deal with people, in any situation, we want to see if we can trust them, so that we feel safe. The Cambridge Dictionary defines trust as the ‘belief that someone is good and honest and will not harm’. So, naturally, we look for people who are like us, or who fit our conditional stereotypes and don’t pose a threat to our safety. 

How does this manifest itself in our recruitment processes?

Straight out of University and in my first role in ‘Personnel’, I carefully prepared candidate information for a manager, who was recruiting into his team. He dismissed the pack I put in front of him and said glibly, ‘I don’t need all this, I just trust my gut instinct!’. I looked around at the team sitting uniformly outside his office, and I noticed that they were all males, they were all white and they were all around the same age as him. This was over 30 years ago, and so you could say ‘they were different times’.

But, unfortunately, bias was as evident then as it is now.

Bias pervades our people practices and policies so that we project whether someone will fit in and feel included in our workplace. Our socialisation and our experiences provide us with favourite types and preferences which shape our recruitment processes.

During the time we are recruiting we make assessments about whether someone will work well with us and about how safe we will feel asking them to carry out the work we need to complete. The magazine ‘People Management’ recently ran an article stating that 31% of recruiters said they felt reluctant to employ someone who had previously served in the military, revealing that their perception about the mental health of service personnel remained a significant barrier in the recruitment process. In this way, armed forces leavers are stigmatised.

Four Types of Bias

Let’s look at four types of bias which we know exist and form part of our recruitment decisions;

Affinity Bias – this happens when we look for qualities in someone ‘just like me’, who has had similar life experiences. So, for example, we see on a CV that someone went to University and we like that, because we went to University. Even better, we then see that they went to the same University as we did!

Confirmation Bias – this is a tendency to search, interpret or recall information that confirms our perception. For example, a candidate arrives late for the interview and so we look for information afterwards to confirm our assumption that they are disorganised.

Halo Effect –This is when we see or hear one great thing about someone, and we let it significantly affect our overall view. For example, we may like the outfit they are wearing or their hairstyle and this affects our overall view to such an extent that we pay less attention to the quality of their answers or their suitable experience.

Horns Effect – This is when we see or hear one bad thing about someone, and we let it cloud our opinion about their other attributes. For example, they may use a turn of phrase as part of their answer, which then turns us off for the rest of the interview.

Incidentally, a manager I once worked with confessed that she wouldn’t employ anyone who wore scruffy shoes, and another told me that they had an issue employing someone with a particular regional accent. 

How can we overcome bias?

The point is that we all have bias. Once we admit this and understand why we have bias, we can learn to deal with it, and overcome it.

And, we do need to deal with our bias, because discriminating against someone who has one of the *protected characteristics (and we all have at least one protected characteristic) is unlawful. 

In fact, the evidence shows, conversely, that diverse teams are more creative, they make faster decisions and they are more productive. 

What’s not to love?

Here are seven steps you can take to overcome bias, when recruiting; 

  1. Be Conscious and Take your Time

Be deliberate and slow down your thoughts and assessments about what you know, what you don’t know and what you have yet to find out. Go carefully through the process and don’t jump to any conclusions. Test out your thoughts and assumptions within your team, and with your colleagues. 

  1. Job Adverts, Job Descriptions and Person Specifications

Think about where you will advertise the job role, so that you can attract the widest possible field of applicants. Go through all of the documentation for the job role. Check the use of language to make sure that it doesn’t suggest any bias by appealing particularly to one group of people over another. Take out any unnecessary tasks and duties or requirements e.g. degree essential.

  1. Blind Recruitment

Remove all personal information from the application form or CV. This will prevent bias setting in at the early stages of the recruitment process. Make sure you treat each application in isolation, rather than comparing one with another.

  1. Plan and Script Interviews

Consider the interview questions and check for any bias, then ask someone else to double check. Make sure that the interview panel seek out evidence and stick to the script. 

  1. Diverse Trained Panel

Train your recruiting managers in unconscious and conscious bias and how to conduct an interview in a non -biased way.

  1. Skills Tests

Make sure that your skills tests are appropriate for the role you are recruiting to and will support any predictions you make about future job role suitability.

  1. Positive action 

Take action to recruit from under-represented groups, to address any imbalance in your organisation.

And finally, keep asking yourself; 

Why am I thinking this way? 

What is my bias here? and, 

What can I do to avoid it?

There’s really nothing to fear.

Happy Halloween!


*The 9 Protected Characteristics.

Age, Sex, Disability, Marriage and Civil Partnership, Religion or Belief, Race, Sexual Orientation, Pregnancy and Maternity, Gender Reassignment.

Vanessa is a very experienced HR Professional with a career spanning over 30 years. Prior to setting up Imago HR she worked for many years as a senior HR leader, providing a compassionate and pragmatic approach to people management. Click on her website to find out more about the Imago HR service