HR Answers: Does Bias Influence Your Hiring? 

September 2018: Vol 41 No 9
Joseph T. Sefcik 
Unconscious biases are part of the human experience. How can your credit union negate them in its recruiting and hiring processes? 
Five job candidates waiting on chairs without faces showing to know their age and race

Imagine a scenario where a respected HR manager is approached by an outside management consultant to discuss bias in their hiring process. This veteran leader is a little defensive because the HR team has a track record of being committed to professional strategies that are fair to all parties. 

The consultant digs a little deeper, this time mentioning “unconscious bias.” 

Perhaps there is something new to learn.

What Is Unconscious Bias?

According to this article in Forbes magazine, unconscious biases are “deeply subconscious attitudes [that] span race, gender, appearance, age, wealth and much more.” Psychologists assure us we all have them. No one is exempt. Unconscious biases are part of the human experience. 
The focus of this article is unconscious bias in the workplace, specifically in recruiting and hiring, which I believe warrants our attention. Again, quoting the Forbes article, “Unconscious bias … undermines recruiting efforts and employee development, which can be destabilizing to an organization.”

Before going further, let’s return to our HR manager. We can understand the initial reaction because bias often has a negative connotation. We are wise to remember that the majority of bias stereotypes do not come from a place of negative intent. 

Harvard University researcher Mahzarin Banaji writes, “Most of us believe that we are ethical and unbiased. We imagine we’re good decision-makers, able to objectively size up a job candidate or a venture deal and reach a fair and rational conclusion that’s in … our organization’s best interests, but more than two decades of research confirms that, in reality, most of us fall woefully short of our … self-perception.”

Here's a sampling of the ways unconscious biases can impact our decision-making:

  • Embedded perceptions: how we see others and interpret the reality of a moment.
  • Reactions and responses: how we react towards specific types of people.
  • Applying a focus: where and to whom we gravitate.
  • Willingness to listen: what voice captures our attention.

Let’s turn to recruitment and hiring.

5 Common Types of Bias in Recruiting

To help offer some context for how bias enters into recruitment efforts, here are five common types of bias that can appear during the process.

  1. Conformity bias: This is also known as “group think,” when people go with the group’s choice and suppress their own opinions. 
  2. Affinity bias: This occurs when the candidate and recruiter share a common experience or attribute. 
  3. Halo effect: One positive attribute about a person is elevated beyond a reasonable proportion. 
  4. Compare and contrast effect: When a recruiter spends a concentrated amount of time reviewing resumes or interviewing candidates, the challenge is to evaluate a candidate based on his or her own merit. 
  5. Confirmation bias: If a recruiter has a gut reaction about a candidate, the next step is often to find a reason to confirm the choice. 

Pre-employment Testing and Interviews

In my tenure as president of Employment Technologies, working alongside our research team, we typically confront bias as it relates to interviewing and pre-screening methods. Much of our philosophy is summed up in this article from the Harvard Business Review, “… the evidence against unstructured interviews should make any hiring manager pause. These interviews should not be your evaluation tool of choice; they are fraught with bias and irrelevant information. Instead, managers should invest in tools that have been shown to predict future performance. On the top of your list should be work-sample tests related to the tasks the job candidate will have to perform.” 

In a piece I wrote for our company’s blog, I covered five common interviewing myths and touched on the issue of bias. “Like anyone else, interviewers are prone to influences that affect their judgment such as the applicant’s appearance, voice quality, qualifications, grades—and an applicant’s self-promotion.”

The work-sample tests referenced above are discussed in another one of our blog posts that covers the three essentials of testing: validity, reliability, and compliance. “Speed, cost, and convenience are important considerations for any employee selection process. But if you don’t start with a solid foundation of validity, reliability, and compliance, your new process will be off to a shaky start.”

Managing the subjective, human element of individual biases and expectations is the challenge. To increase accuracy and help control for potential bias, it’s important to use objective tools like well-designed pre-hire assessments early in the selection process. Switching to a consistent, structured interview process will also help you avoid common interview mistakes.

By using objective tools early in the hiring process, following a proven structured approach, and staying true to the three essentials of accuracy, reliability and compliance, you’ll be well on your way to hiring the absolute best people quickly, accurately, reliably, fairly and with a high return on your investment.

Joseph T. Sefcik is president of Employment Technologies, Winter Park, Fla.

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