Implicit Bias in Hiring — What to Look For and How to Avoid It

Last month, we looked at how to avoid inappropriate topics during an employment interview. But often, discrimination in hiring is less overt than a direct question. And employers must ensure that the entire hiring process is truly fair. I recently completed a continuing education class on implicit bias and would like to share some insights on how to limit it at different stages as you recruit and hire employees.

The job search process

  • Evaluate job descriptions for bias
    • Newspapers used to split their help wanted ads into two categories: male and female. Even now, job descriptions can subtly communicate gender preference by using words stereotypically associated with men or women: competitive, assertive, collaborative, nurturing — you get the idea. Review your job postings before releasing them and either replace such words with more neutral ones or alternate between traditionally gendered qualities.
  • Beware of employee referrals
    • Referrals from current employees are valuable but can also serve to reinforce bias. For example, if your employees mostly are straight white men, referrals probably will be, too. To diversify your workforce, either eliminate referral programs — especially those with paid referral bonuses — or structure the program in a way that rewards referral of diverse candidates.

The candidate selection process

  • Use blind résumés
    • Evaluating applicants on the basis of job qualifications alone can be tricky. Studies find that names like Emma and Josh are more likely to be called in for an interview than Lakisha or Jamal. Even addresses can be a basis for bias. To prevent such issues, have résumés stripped of identifying information before they are reviewed.
  • Work as a team
    • If one person is responsible for hiring, biases may go unrecognized. When a team works together to evaluate prospects, one person’s bias will not sway the process. Use hiring committees when possible — and be sure the committee itself is diverse.

The interview process

  • Use standardized questions
    • As we suggested last month, using a set of prepared questions is the best way to keep an interview objective and on topic. Ask each candidate the same questions in the same order and make sure the questions focus on skills and qualifications.
  • Use a scoring rubric for evaluation
    • Having a score sheet forces team members to use standard criteria for evaluating candidates. It also prevents the elimination of candidates because of a vague reason such as “not a good fit.” Along with a score, evaluators should explain the reason for their decision — a good way to eliminate bias.

The hiring decision and beyond

  • Set hiring goals
    • Having a diversity goal drives the hiring committee’s process by causing them to rethink the tendency to hire the same types of people over and over. It can also shift thinking by forcing the team to consider differences as positive traits.
  • Discuss implicit biases explicitly
    • Before the final hiring decision, the committee should openly discuss any potential biases. Although such a discussion is valuable at every step of the hiring process, it is very important at this stage to ensure that candidates have been evaluated on merit alone.

The challenge of unconscious bias, of course, is that we aren’t aware of it in ourselves. Your employment attorney is a valuable resource in helping your company avoid all types of bias in hiring. As always, we are happy to help.


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