What is Unconscious Bias in Recruitment?

If you’ve ever walked into a coffee shop and automatically taken the seat that’s furthest from a group of young people, the chances are that without even thinking about it, you acted on a preconceived notion that they will be loud and irritating. While this is a very simple example of unconscious bias, it’s something that we recruiters — and candidates — need to be aware of when going through the hiring process. 

Unconscious biases affect how we view people and can have a significant impact on our ability to make logical decisions based on facts. In recruitment, they can have either a positive or negative effect on a candidate’s chances of landing a role while employees who see bias in the workplace are much less likely to be fully engaged. And this disengagement costs money. In the US alone, it’s estimated that disengaged employees cost companies as much as $450 Billion a year

But let’s get back to unconscious bias in recruitment. 

What is unconscious bias?

An unconscious bias is a preconceived notion, prejudice or opinion about a person or group of people based on their background. This can be based on one or a number of factors such as gender, education, physical features, or a person’s age. 

A very simple example in the world of recruitment would be if two candidates went for the same job, one with experience at a multinational company and another with experience at a small local company. Recruiters and hiring managers will often automatically view the first candidate as a more suitable choice while the second candidate will have to work twice as hard in their interview to prove they have what it takes.  

Unfortunately, the recruiter or hiring manager may not even realise that they’re giving preference to the first candidate — it’s an unconscious bias after all. 

What are the types of unconscious bias?

There are actually quite a lot of forms of unconscious bias that cover aspects such as height and even over-confidence. But when it comes to the recruitment process, these nine are the most common. 

Affinity bias

As you can probably tell from the name, this type of bias occurs when a recruiter feels an affinity towards a candidate. This is likely due to some qualities or characteristics that the recruiter shares with the candidate. It can also occur when a recruiter feels that a candidate holds some of the same qualities as their successful peers or industry influencers. 

When a recruiter feels this kind of bias, they may be inclined to think that the candidate will be easy to get along with and fit in well in the company. 

Attribution bias 

Attribution bias makes a recruiter or hiring manager look at a candidate’s successes as ‘lucky’ or ‘one off’ moments. At the same time, it makes them view failures or weaknesses as warning signs that this candidate may not be suitable for the role. 

It’s important to note here that while failures or errors may seem like red flags that hiring managers should watch out for, everyone makes mistakes from time to time. It’s how a candidate followed up on that mistake that really tells the story. 

Beauty bias

This is quite possibly the one bias that troubles us the most and not always for the reasons you might think. While beauty bias is related to a person’s physical appearance, it’s not necessarily about how attractive they are. 

Beauty bias will see a recruiter focus a little too much on any aspect of a candidate’s physical appearance in either a positive or negative way. This will then affect any decision they make in relation to the candidate’s suitability. 

Conformity bias

This particular type of bias often happens when a candidate is interviewed by a panel. When the majority of the panel form an opinion, there’s a tendency for those who are undecided to conform and simply agree even if they have reservations. 

Unfortunately, the majority can be wrong from time to time and great candidates could miss out on the perfect role. 

Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias happens when a recruiter forms an opinion on one aspect of a candidate’s background. They will then look for other things to confirm this opinion regardless of whether it’s negative or positive. 

This happens a lot with candidates with degrees from respected colleges or those who have worked in large companies. The recruiter looks for positives that confirm that this candidate is a good fit. 

Contrast effect

This happens when a recruiter or hiring manager can’t decide between two candidates. They will then compare them against each other to see who is more suitable. Now, this may seem like common sense, after all, it’s what we do as consumers, right?

However, when we do this, we often compare potential candidates against the very best. The truth is that no one can really compare to your best candidate, that’s why they’re the best. This sets the bar a little too high for other candidates and can lead to perfectly good people missing out on a role. 

Halo effect 

Sometimes a recruiter will find one aspect of a candidate’s background so desirable that they’ll ignore everything else no matter how negative it may be. This is called the halo effect and results in a recruiter looking at everything in a positive light. 

It’s no surprise that this can result in poor hiring decisions. 

Horns effect 

This is the exact opposite of the halo effect. A recruiter will latch onto something that they find negative about a candidate. The candidate will then face an uphill battle trying to convince the recruiter that they are worthy of the role. 

Incredibly, this can happen for extremely minor things such as a candidate arriving a few moments late or having an untidy appearance. 

Gender bias 

We are all too aware that gender bias is still a thing in the workplace. One study found that even when men and women receive identical performance evaluations, men receive higher pay rises. Another recent study found that as many as 42% of women experience discrimination in the workplace. 

The very notion that a person can be considered unsuitable for a role based on their gender is beyond belief, but unfortunately it does happen. 

 

Unfortunately, as a candidate, there’s very little that you can do to tackle these biases. But in reality, it’s not your responsibility anyway. The responsibility lies with the recruiter and hiring manager who must ensure that they and their teams are fully aware of the potential dangers of unconscious bias. 

 

If you’re currently seeking a new challenge or you’re looking for the right person to fill a role, we’d love to help. All of our recruiters take great care to ensure that the unconscious biases listed above have no impact on our ability to match the right candidates with the right roles. Want to learn more? Then go ahead and get in touch and we’ll be happy to help.



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