7 Practical Ways to Reduce Bias in Your Hiring Process

Author: Rebecca Knight

Editor’s Note: SHRM has partnered with Harvard Business Review to bring you relevant articles on key HR topics and strategies. In this article, the author outlines how HR and management prevent unconscious bias in the hiring process.

A vast body of research shows that the hiring process is biased and unfair. Unconscious racism, ageism, and sexism play a big role in whom we hire. But there are steps you can take to recognize and reduce these biases. So where should you start? And how can you help others on your team do the same?

What the Experts Say

Unconscious biases have a critical and “problematic” effect on our judgment, says Francesca Gino, professor at Harvard Business School. “They cause us to make decisions in favor of one person or group to the detriment of others.”

In the workplace, this “can stymie diversity, recruiting, promotion, and retention efforts.” Left unchecked, biases can also shape a company or industry’s culture and norms, says Iris Bohnet, director of the Women and Public Policy Program at the Harvard Kennedy School and author of What Works: Gender Equality by Design. “Seeing is believing,” she explains. “If we don’t see male kindergarten teachers or female engineers we don’t naturally associate women and men with those jobs, and we apply different standards” when hiring, promoting and evaluating job performance. “Managers have to learn to de-bias their practices and procedures.” Here are some strategies.

1. Seek to understand

When it comes to biases and hiring, managers need to “think broadly about ways to simplify and standardize the process,” says Bohnet. To begin, you’ll need to understand what hiring prejudices are and how they operate. Gino recommends managers look into providing workers with education and training on the topic. “Awareness training is the first step to unraveling unconscious bias because it allows employees to recognize that everyone possesses them and to identify their own.” The idea is to create an “organizational conversation” about biases and help spark ideas on “steps the organization as a whole can take to minimize them.”

2. Rework your job descriptions

Job listings play an important role in recruiting talent and often provide the first impression of a company’s culture. “Even subtle word choices can have a strong impact on the application pool,” says Gino. Research shows that masculine language, including adjectives like “competitive” and “determined,” results in women “perceiving that they would not belong in the work environment.” On the other hand, words like “collaborative” and “cooperative,” tend to draw more women than men. Software programs that highlight stereotypically gendered words can help counteract this effect, says Bohnet. “Then you can either remove the words and replace them with something more neutral,” or strive to strike a balance by using the same number of gendered descriptors and verbs. “Go back and forth between the words ‘build’ and ‘create,'” for example. The goal here is to “explore and see how [these changes] affect your pool. Learn by doing.”

3. Go blind for the resume review

Next, you need to “level the playing field” by “ensuring you are focused” on your candidate’s specific qualifications and talents, not surface “demographic characteristics,” says Bohnet. “The fact is Latisha and Jamal do not get the same number of callbacks as Emily and Greg. You need to look at what each person brings to the table.” Again, software programs that blind the process for you are useful, says Gino. A blind, systematic process for reviewing applications and resumes “will help you improve your chances of including the most relevant candidates in your interview pool, including uncovering some hidden gems,” adds Gino. “It is easy for bias to trickle in when such a process is not decided a priori.”

4. Give a work sample test

“Work sample tests that mimic the kinds of tasks the candidate will be doing in the job,” are the best “indicators of future job performance,” according to Bohnet. Evaluating work sample tests from multiple applicants also helps “calibrate your judgment to see how Candidate A compares to Candidate B.” Gino concurs. Asking candidates to solve work-related problems or “partake in a skill test” yields important insights. “A skill test forces employers to critique the quality of a candidate’s work versus unconsciously judging them based on appearance, gender, age, and even personality,” she says.

5. Standardize interviews

Research shows that unstructured interviews — which lack defined questions and whereby a candidate’s experience and expertise are meant to unfold organically through conversation — are “often unreliable for predicting job success,” says Gino. On the other hand, structured interviews, whereby each candidate is asked the same set of defined questions, “standardize the interview process” and “minimizes bias” by allowing employers to “focus on the factors that have a direct impact on performance.” Bohnet suggests using an interview scorecard that grades candidates’ responses to each question on a predetermined scale. “Ideally interviewers don’t know the specifics about how well each candidate did in terms of the CV review and work sample,” she adds. The goal is for the “interview to become a third independent data point.”

6. Consider likeability (if it matters to you)

It’s natural to gravitate toward people with whom you instantly gel. “One study found that impressions made in the first 10 seconds of an interview could impact the interview’s outcome,” Gino notes. “Another suggested that employers hire people that they like the most on a personal level.” But this bias toward “natural chemistry or common interests” is another one to watch out for. Bohnet describes likeability as perhaps “the most challenging question of the hiring process.” Ask yourself, “Does it matter whether you like the person you hire? And how important is it to you?” If you do care about it, Bohnet recommends rating candidates as you would on their other skills during the interview. “By giving likeability a score, you’re making it more controllable.”

7. Set diversity goals

“Diversity goals are worthwhile,” says Bohnet. “They make the issue front and center” in organizations. And yet, she cautions, be careful when you broach the idea with colleagues. “They are sometimes controversial for companies because they can undermine the people who are hired in those categories or lead to a backlash from the traditionally advantaged groups.” Data can help you get buy-in. A growing body of research suggests that diversity in the workforce results in “significant business advantages,” says Gino. She recommends that “at the end of every hiring process, leaders track how well they’ve done against the diversity goals they set out to achieve.” This also encourages those involved in the hiring and in other parts of the company “to keep diversity and equality top of mind.”

Principles to Remember

Do:

  • Experiment with the wording of job listings by removing adjectives closely associated with a particular gender.
  • Ask candidates to take a work sample test — it’s useful in comparing applicants and it’s an effective predictor of future job performance.
  • Control for your personal feelings about a particular candidate by giving likability a numerical score.

Don’t:

  • Engage in unstructured interviews. Instead, standardize the interviews process by asking candidates the same set of defined questions.
  • Allow surface demographic characteristics to play into your resume review. Use a software program that blinds that information and ensures a level playing field.
  • Neglect to set diversity goals. Be sure to track how well you’re doing on them.

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