If It’s “Unconscious” Bias That’s Better, Right?

William J. Wiggins candidate experience, Diversity, EEO, Hiring Bias, Hiring Managers, Talent Acquisition

If Nostradamus had made a prediction about the state of equality in the year 2021, it’s likely that he would have predicted equality for all human beings. Yet here we are, in 2021 still struggling with of all things, INEQUALITY. Let’s be honest, the workplace can be a hotspot for biases and discrimination that gives inequality its foundation, starting with the hiring process.

We are all human, We can all agree on that, I think. As humans, we have a tendency to make decisions heuristically, or by making cognitive shortcuts as we have been programmed to do. But there are some situations that require a more analytical and objective approach. Relying solely on instinct, or on the rule of thumb, can show up as implicit bias if we are not cognizant or thoughtful about our hiring and screening practices.

Unconscious biases are unconscious attitudes and stereotypes that manifest in our workplace, particularly in the recruiting and hiring process. These biases operate outside of our awareness and can be in direct contradiction to our most tightly held beliefs; and often will show up in our affect or behavior towards another individual. Freeing ourselves of unconscious bias and making hiring decisions based on them is easier said that done because often we are unaware that they exist and herefore may not realize the impact these biases have on hiring outcomes to the organization and the candidates themselves.

Defining and owning the validity of unconscious biases is the first step to mitigating them. Unfortunately, there are so many types of implicit biases that there is not enough space in this page to define them all. But, I will share a few recent cases for you just incase you think you’ve heard it all.

Case #1 Hair Bias (there us such a thing) ~ targets black people, specifically who have afro-textured hair that’s not been chemically straightened. Afro-textured hair has frequently been seen as being unprofessional, unattractive, and unclean.
The organization conducted a national search and found a candidate from Atlanta. She was highly qualified and educated and nailed her phone screen, By all accounts we’d found our next VP of Finance. When the offer was extended to the second runner up and lesser qualified candidate. I asked the Recruiter to explain why. His response was “they (the hiring panel) really liked her, but she had those things in her hair and some of them felt her hairdo didn’t embody the brand.” So I went the hiring manager (who was also the CFO) for more information. He agreed that she was by far the most qualified on paper but “I just couldn’t get past the whole hair thing.”

Case #2 Racial Bias ~ A form of implicit bias, which refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect an individual’s understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.
The candidate came with a Master’s in Finance and a successful track record in operations for a healthcare system 3 times the size of our own. He was by far the most qualified of the 4 finalists from a pool of 80. He was personable, innovative, had lots of great ideas, and according to the Recruiter “could really elevate the team.” So when I saw the third choice candidate sitting in new hire orientation I asked the Recruiter what happened to this candidate everyone was excited about? Her response was, “everyone really loved him, they thought he was great but some people thought staff might be a little intimidated.” So I went to the hiring manager to check on the matter, I was told that they “loved” candidate but there was some concern that a guy of his size and stature (6’7 tall, 300 lbs or so) might be a bit intimidating to the team of these predominately white millennials. I could totally see the staff being scared (expletive) by this big intense looking Black guy in their 1:1’s (raucous laughter).”

Case #3 Horn Effect ~ A bias that surfaces when something bad about the candidate negatively grabs our attention and we can’t move beyond it. It could be a character flaw or aspect of their personality, or even the sound of their voice that drives your decision to not hire them.
The frontrunner was a highly qualified Asian woman. She came prepared, great responses, knowledgeable, engaging, and met or exceeded every qualification. When the panel passed on the candidate after less than an hour of interviewing her I followed up with the hiring manager who responded “We were turned off by her voice, she had to let us know that her boyfriend chartered a private jet to whisk her away to a romantic island for her birthday, AND she was wearing a diamond encrusted watch to an interview and carrying a Gucci bag! It was just one thing after the other with that one, and that voice, ugh! We’re not about all of that here, but super qualified.” So they went with the second choice candidate. Her tenure was brief.

So what can you do about hiring bias? 

• Be sure recruiters and hiring managers have received interview training that covers common hiring biases.
• Utilize standardized interview guides to support a consistent process.
• Drive hiring decisions based on evidence rather than on subjective assumptions.

Also consider incorporating blind resume review into your process, and make sure that you interview panels represent diversity. Most importantly, make it a habit to debrief often with your team and hiring manager, AND be willing to call out any unconscious biases both real and perceived.