Today’s heightened awareness of diversity, equity and inclusion has employers taking a closer look at hiring practices with this question in mind: What barriers are job candidates experiencing? 

In the process, talent acquisition leaders are addressing unconscious bias. But doing so requires understanding what unconscious bias is, understanding types of bias and recognizing the ways these barriers can affect talent acquisition.

Dr. Chela White-Ramsey, Senior Manager of Training and Development in Indeed’s Client Engagement team, shared insights on how an open discussion of unconscious bias can help improve hiring at Indeed Interactive 2021. Let’s explore just how we can do that and build a fairer and more equitable world of work.

What does “unconscious bias” mean?

Because different people may have different perceptions as to what “unconscious bias” means, starting the discussion with a definition helps eliminate misunderstandings. Dr. White-Ramsey suggests this simple definition:

Unconscious bias refers to stereotypes or assumptions we make outside of our awareness.”

In other words, biases — whether positive or negative — are ideas, feelings or beliefs buried within our thoughts that arise without our being conscious of thinking them. Common areas where we see biases include 

  • race and ethnicity, 
  • gender identity, 
  • how old — or how young — people are,
  • people’s differences in learning and thinking (what’s known as neurodiversity), and
  • attitudes toward people with disabilities.

We all have unconscious biases, and some reflection on what these thoughts and feelings might be and how they might influence our actions in the workplace can be very beneficial. Dr. White-Ramsey provides an example of how an unconscious bias created an unanticipated impact on a company launching a groundbreaking new service:

Biases can have a tangible impact on hiring

In the example Dr. White-Ramsey shares, we see how unconscious bias impacted select users: left-handed people experienced frustration and inconvenience over improperly loaded videos. The brand was also affected — with all those problems loading videos, was something wrong with the platform? 

Because biases operate outside of awareness, they often remain invisible. The resulting hidden barriers limit talent pools and reduce workplace diversity — both of which affect all aspects of the business, from talent acquisition and the organization’s capability for innovation and strategy to its financial gains
How can one unintentional action negatively impact hiring? Indeed’s research on effective candidate outreach provides Dr. White-Ramsey with an interesting example:

Why would any company tolerate hiring barriers for quality job candidates? It’s simple: we’re only human. Everyone has gaps in understanding — and remember, these are unconscious (remember those right-handed developers who didn’t consider lefties?) 

Unintentional exclusions can exist even when employers believe they’re acting equitably. For example, when Indeed surveyed worldwide employers about what they considered the most accurate evaluation of a candidate’s abilities, 58% chose “how candidates come across in a job interview.” This response was given more often than “previous work samples” (45%) and “test/assignment scores” (37%). But what does “how candidates come across” mean? 

Attempting to quantify or standardize “how candidates come across” quickly reveals how personal and subjective this “evaluation” is. And where subjectivity exists in hiring assessments, unconscious bias can creep in, leading to negative outcomes, such as a less diverse and inclusive workplace. Candidate interviews, therefore, are one area where rethinking practices can lead to more inclusive outcomes. 

Two common types of bias show up in interviews

So what could unconscious bias look like in a candidate interview? While biases in candidate interviews could take many different forms, Dr. White-Ramsey explains two common types of bias and provides possible solutions for mitigating their impact. Here’s the first example:

As Dr. White-Ramsey stated, affinity bias, or “like me” syndrome, helps you hire a lot of people who are just like you. However, when the focus is on cultural fit rather than cultural addition,  employers miss out on expanding diversity and accessing a new pool of quality candidates. 

Now, she takes a look at another type of unconscious bias in an interview situation:

Successfully combating confirmation bias involves bringing in more perspectives, as Dr. White-Ramsey pointed out, and individual awareness — are you willing to open your mind to candidate possibilities and reach more diverse, inclusive and even unconventional quality talent?

Takeaways for tackling unconscious bias in your hiring

Removing biases and barriers for quality job candidates is key to opening the door to top talent and achieving diversity and inclusion goals in the workplace. The first step is discovering whether a problem exists — and because unconscious biases are often hidden, that means actively examining each stage of recruitment and hiring to overcome these hiring barriers. The scope of that review can seem daunting; however, data can help

Taking these three steps can help ascertain whether unconscious bias and resulting hiring barriers may be impacting your talent acquisition:

  • Build company-specific reports to analyze trends and reveal results. Work with the hiring team to ask important questions — Where is talent coming from? Who’s getting promoted? Who’s leaving? — that lead to gathering company numbers on the sources of hire and attrition. Once you’ve built reports, collaborate with the talent acquisition team to review collected data. With this data-based information, you’ll gain key insight into how to improve talent acquisition practices and influence change for better hiring results.
  • Add transparency by sharing data. Sharing relevant information internally helps TA professionals work together to examine existing practices and then enact better processes. And sharing externally, when possible, demonstrates your company’s commitment to more equitable hiring practices — and diversity and inclusion matter a great deal to today’s job candidates.
  • Use today’s data as a comparison to inspire more equitable hiring in the future. Benchmarks are important tools for measuring progress, and everyone has to start somewhere.

Whether collecting and sharing data or setting benchmarks for improvement, tackling unconscious bias in the workplace involves an initial commitment to change. 

As LaFawn Davis, Indeed’s Group VP of Environmental, Social & Governance, points out, “... these suggestions [to eliminate bias] can lead to uncomfortable conversations. But without them, you can end up hiring only people who think like you. When you do that, how are you going to have your thinking challenged? If your thinking isn’t challenged, how will you see things differently? If you don’t see things differently, how will you innovate? If you don’t innovate, how will you challenge the status quo?”

How will you become a changemaker and work to remove bias and barriers in your hiring strategies? The more we make the commitment to consciously enact equitable hiring practices, the more we will succeed at overcoming our unconscious biases and build a better world of work.