Unconscious biases, diversity, inclusion, equality — these are fast becoming ubiquitous terms in recruitment and hiring, specifically when we talk about candidate interviews.
Despite the reality that unconscious biases persist, the very fact that so many people are aware of them is reason to celebrate. Many are working hard to develop processes, tools and tech to stamp out these biases.
The same can be said about promoting an inclusive workplace. Indeed, providing a workplace and company culture that instills a sense of belonging among all employees requires first that diversity be made a priority, and second that employees feel included.
Below, we will explore five ways that awareness and conversations around these important concepts are affecting the interview process.
But first, we have to talk about biases.
We Are All Biased
As a starting point, everyone needs to acknowledge and accept that we are all biased.
Plenty of studies highlight that this is a reality of how the human brain works. Rejecting this truth will only prevent personal and professional development, business coach Brooke Schultz explains.
Companies, too, have to acknowledge organizational biases and set out to remove them, and not judge themselves or their employees.
The Many Ways a Company Can Bias Its Candidate Interviews
Organizational biases take several forms.
Attribution bias is important in the context of the interviewing process — particularly after their first round of interviews. Bailey Reiners at Built In describes attribution bias as trying “to make sense of or judge a person’s behavior based on prior observations and interactions you’ve had with that individual that make up your perception of them.”
The problem with attribution bias is it can cause a hiring manager to judge a candidate falsely. For instance, the hiring manager might detect an errant red flag due to perceived unexpected behavior during an interview. Subsequent interactions with the candidate will be viewed through a lens of suspicion.
There are also affinity bias, conformity bias, gender bias and many others. But there are ways to overcome biases, says Dr. Pragya Agarwal, a behavioral scientist and inclusivity consultant.
Gender bias, for example, can impact every phase of recruitment and hiring. Organizations that understand this, though, can take straightforward steps to remedy the impact of this bias. “Use gender-neutral descriptions and avoid gender-coded words,” Dr. Agarwal writes.
“Research has also shown that women are less likely to apply for jobs that have a very long list of ’desirable’ qualities, as they do not wish to waste the employer’s time if they are not perfectly suited to the role. Women are also less likely to shout about their achievements, and to negotiate salaries.”
Addressing Organizational Bias Is a Culture-Level Task
Self-reflection is also an important aspect of mitigating the influence of hiring biases. So, too, is having decision-makers who can bring a variety of perspectives to the table. To this end, a diverse hiring panel can help keep individual biases in check.
Now, take this idea a few levels up — from diverse perspectives to inclusivity in leadership — to see how culture and organizational biases tie together. As Claire Zillman at Fortune points out, 33 of the CEOs on the 2019 Fortune 500 list were women. That’s the highest number ever, but it’s also just 6.6 percent of the total. It’s slight progress, but it’s also the kind of progress that can compound.
Zillman points to research from Utah State University professors Christy Glass and Alison Cook, who note that when corporate boards include women, those boards tend to be more gender-equitable about whom they appoint as CEOs. This has ripple effects all the way back down to the levels of hiring and recruitment. When women see other women in senior roles, they are more likely to imagine themselves working with and thriving within the organization recruiting them.
Lesson No. 1: Name-Blind Recruitment Works
The UK civil service uses name-blind recruitment to stamp out unconscious biases. The government’s Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), which began as the “nudge unit,” removes names from applications and has the assessors examine multiple candidates’ answers to a particular question rather than assess one candidate’s resume before moving onto the other, The Guardian’s Haroon Siddique explains.
BIT CEO David Halpern tells Siddique that half of the successful candidates would not have been hired using a “conventional CV sift” because of unconscious biases.
Lesson No. 2: ‘Gender-Neutral’ Means a Lot More Than Many People Realize
A gender-neutral hiring process requires much, much more than scrubbing certain language from a want ad.
Case in point: Have you considered whether your workplace has a gender-neutral bathroom for candidates to use? Rachel Murray at She+ Geeks Out says companies should remove gender-specific bathroom labels to make the physical space more inclusive. A non-binary candidate may experience discomfort at the binary choices, and hiring managers should be aware of this.
Along those same lines, hiring managers need to know — and be ready to use — a candidate’s preferred pronouns. But simply asking for someone’s pronouns outright is fairly clumsy, especially if the candidate has no prior evidence that the organization or the workplace is safe and respectful of trans people.
Devon Price, a professor at Loyola University Chicago’s School of Continuing & Professional Studies, has an excellent guide to asking people about their pronouns. Hiring managers would do well to read that guide for Price’s practical advice, but also for benchmarking their own organizations’ abilities to create trans-friendly work environments.
Lesson No. 3: A Transparent Interview Process Helps All Applicants Prepare
A common complaint among applicants is that certain organizations don’t have transparent interview processes. That’s not a big problem for candidates who have access to large professional network. But it’s a very real problem for those who don’t, says Veni Kunche, who runs Diversify Tech.
Simply making it clear to candidates at the outset how long the interview will last, what they will be tested on and how they will be evaluated will go a long way in helping all candidates prepare — and not accidentally favor candidates who “know someone who knows someone” who knows how the company conducts its interviews.
Lesson No. 4: Small Talk Sets Traps For Candidates
Small talk may seem like an easy way to break the ice between hiring manager and candidate, but it could taint the neutrality of the process. Pin-ya Tseng, a consultant at diversity and inclusion strategy firm Paradigm, tells one such story. When Tseng interviewed for her role at Paradigm, the hiring manager asked her — in that casual, small-talk way — where she had just flown in from.
When Tseng said, “Ohio,” she saw the excitement register on the hiring manager’s face, as it turns out she was also from Ohio. That brief expression of excitement, however, quickly reverted to business mode. This left Tseng feeling a little confused.
It was only later that Tseng realized the manager had broken, in the most minor of ways, one of Paradigm’s strategies to mitigate bias: Don’t lead with small talk because it can bias interviews.
“Even though she recognized that I was from Ohio, we tried to save small talk until the end to keep the interview itself more objective,” Tseng says. “Engaging me more and asking questions that would ultimately make me feel more comfortable — and more similar to her — would lead to an advantage that I would have versus someone else from a different state.”
Lesson No. 5: Stick to the Script
There are 56 million-plus people with disabilities in the U.S. Many of those people are talented, eager to work and ready to contribute to an organization, says Nancy Geenen, CEO of Flexability.
Geenen cites a stat from the U.S. Department of Labor that shows employers who hire people with disabilities have seen a 90-percent rise in retention, 72-percent rise in productivity and 45-percent rise in workplace safety.
Still, employment of people with disabilities remains low, and one big reason why is that many companies have yet to learn how to talk about a candidate’s aptitude for a role within the context of people having differences in ability.
Fixing this is fairly straightforward. Geenen says hiring managers must simply prepare their questions in advance and stick to the script. Ask the important questions that actually assess a candidate’s suitability for the role.
The working world is changing, and employers are beginning to understand how the deep, unconscious biases that we all have can affect the hiring process. The growing awareness of these biases and the promotion of inclusivity are positive signs. There’s work yet to be done, but we’re on the right path.
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