5 Ways to Conquer Unconscious Bias in Diversity Hiring

5 Ways to Conquer Unconscious Bias in Diversity Hiring

This is a guest blog post by Joe Caccavale. Joe heads up content over at Applied – the blind hiring platform that removes unconscious bias by using behavioral science.

As an organization, you’re committed to improving diversity. You want to build high-performing, diverse teams.

But how do you attract and hire these candidates without simply appealing to a mandated quota or succumbing to discrimination (both positive and negative)?

The steps below will talk you through a simple, research-backed process for increasing diversity at the top of the hiring funnel and ensuring that this diversity is maintained throughout the process.

Although the process below does not guarantee you’ll hire someone from a minority background, diversity will improve over time as a result of bias removal.

I’ll cover:

Let’s dive in!

Unconscious bias in traditional hiring practices

Unconscious biases are the prejudices we have which we are unaware of (hence unconscious).

We tend to categorize others based on qualities like gender, ethnicity, age, and other physical characteristics.

Unconscious bias comes in many forms, and not all of them are necessarily negatively prejudiced.

When we look at recruitment, for example, much of the bias at play leads hirers to lean towards candidates similar to themselves, rather than away from other candidates.

This is likely due to our natural gravitation towards the familiar and the power of certain attributes or events to entirely warp our judgment.

If left unchecked, unconscious bias can have a major impact on our hiring decisions. Bias leads to candidates from minority backgrounds being disproportionately overlooked.

Even a candidate’s name can trigger bias. In a 2004 study, in which only the names on the resumes were changed, candidates with Black-sounding names received 50% fewer callbacks than their counterparts with white-sounding names.

In a similar study conducted in the UK, Inside Out and Bristol University discovered that candidates with a Muslim-sounding name were three times more likely to be passed over for a job. In Germany, if those candidates were also pictured wearing a headscarf, they were 15% less likely to get a callback.

Studies in both the US and Spain discovered similar results in terms of gender differences, as well. In their paper on gender bias in university science faculties, Corinne A. Moss-Racusin, et al, noted that applicants with a feminine name were perceived as less competent, and therefore, less hireable.

The results of M José González, Clara Cortina, and Jorge Rodríguez’s research in Spain indicated that not only were male candidates favored, but women with children were even less likely to receive a callback.

Most of the hirers involved in these studies (you’d hope) are not necessarily explicitly biased. They would likely tell you that they aren’t biased at all.

But the truth is: we’re all biased.

Bias doesn’t make you a bad person. It just makes you human.

However, if we want to improve diversity in workplaces, we must tackle unconscious bias head-on. And the only way to do this is by changing how we hire.

Inclusive job descriptions

Your hiring process starts with a job description.

The words you choose to use in your job description will have a direct impact on who applies to the role.

When we read a job description, we’re assessing whether or not the role and company is a good match for us.

Certain words or phrases carry subconscious meaning, and any candidates who feel that they don’t “fit the bill” will qualify themselves out.

Over-use of masculine-coded language will put women off applying. Characteristics like “superior”, “competitive”, “decisive,” and “determined” are traditionally associated with males. So, if you use too many of these in your job description, you’re effectively signaling that you’re looking for a male candidate.

Examples of masculine-coded language

  • Analytical
  • Autonomous
  • Independent
  • Leader

Examples of feminine-coded language

  • Committed
  • Dependable
  • Supportive
  • Trustworthy

You can see more examples via this LinkedIn article.

Ideally, you should aim to write either feminine or neutral-coded job descriptions. Does this mean you’re actively dissuading males?

No – the effect of gendered language isn’t as strong when it comes to male candidates. They aren’t as deterred by feminine-coded language.

So, if you want to attract an even gender split, gendered language is a solid place to start. As the data below shows, this strategy can drive real-world results:

Diversity hiring violin graph

We looked at a sample of 7563 closed jobs (applied for via the platform). Job descriptions were passed through our Job Description Analysis Tool and were given a gender score. Then, we compared gender scores to the gender of the candidates who applied.

The key takeaway here: Feminine-coded job descriptions will increase the odds of women applying and masculine-coded job descriptions will decrease those odds.

How to do referrals the right way

Fact: Referred candidates tend to be of a similar demographic to the referrer.

According to PayScale’s report, female and minority background applicants are less likely to receive a referral than their white counterparts.

  • White women are 12% less likely to receive a referral
  • Men of color were 26% less likely.
  • Women of color were 35% less likely

If you have diversity gaps you want to improve, employee referrals could actually make these worse. However, referrals are a cheap and quick way to find talent, so you shouldn’t ditch them altogether.

Instead, use this fact to your advantage. Diversify where you source your referrals. Pinterest, for example, encouraged underrepresented employees to refer new candidates to the company.

You can also track where candidates come from since some employees may refer a more diverse set of candidates than others.

Start tracking your job boards

Similar to employee referrals, not all job boards will attract equally diverse sets of candidates.

If you want to get scientific with your sourcing, job board tracking is essential.

The easiest way to get started is to set up UTM (Urchin Traffic Monitor) links for each job board.

UTM links are custom URLs, that are ideal for testing different strategies. You simply add them onto a URL to track the traffic from that URL.

Once you know which candidates come from which job board, it won’t take long to notice which job boards are worth spending your budget on.

If you’re still struggling to source a diverse candidate pool, you could also try posting your ad to specialist job boards.

Below are a few of these job boards to get you started:

Diversity hiring job boards

Why the resume has to go

As we saw from the studies above, the screening stage is where unconscious bias starts to have a significant impact on diversity.

And the traditional resume is to blame.

Resumes lead to bias and they’re not predictive of skills. For many hirers, this statement is blasphemy, but the science doesn’t lie.

Look at the results of this study below:

What's in a Name? A Field Experiment Test for the Existence of Ethnic Discrimination in the Hiring Process
(Source)

All across the western world, minority background candidates are being discriminated against.

This is why at Applied, we anonymized applications.

And not just names: addresses, date of birth, and even education/ and experience history are removed.

Diversity hiring resume analysis
(Source)

For most hirers, education and experience are vital information. It’s what people are hired based on.

But what if we told you that education and experience don’t tell you that much about someone’s real-life ability?

Take a peek at the results of this famous meta-analysis:

How predictive are your hiring methods?
(Source)

As you can see, your resume staples (education and experience) are some of the least predictive means of assessing someone’s ability to do a given job.

So, once you’ve taken all background information away from a resume – what’s actually left?

Well, not a whole lot.

That’s why we decided to go beyond just anonymization and scrap the resume completely.

By removing any identifying information as well as someone’s academic and work history, you’re removing any potential grounds for bias.

If you replace resumes with a more predictive means of assessment, you’ll be able to spot talent more reliably and improve diversity.

If you look back at the chart above, you’ll see that the most “predictively valid” forms of assessment are called “work sample tests.”

Work sample tests take parts of the role and turn them into questions or tasks. They’re designed to simulate the role as closely as possible.

To create your own work sample questions, start by defining the core skills required to do the job.

Then, think of a real-life task or issue that candidates would have to tackle should they get the job that might test one of those skills.

It could be an upcoming project or something that has already happened (or even something entirely hypothetical).

You could either use an individual task – such as a presentation or email to be sent – or you could take an entire project that needs planning or thinking through.

Depending on the situation, you can either ask candidates how they’d approach the task, or simply ask them to perform it.

Here’s an example of a work sample we used for an Operations Manager role:

You have been helping the marketing team to organize a diversity event for 250 people at a venue in central London. Many of Applied’s clients and partners will be there, as well as the press.

One week before the event is due to take place, you get a voicemail and an email from the venue telling you that they have accidentally double-booked the room you had reserved. They offer you a slightly smaller room that will seat 200 in another related venue nearby.

What actions do you take?

Work samples enable you to gain a genuine insight into how candidates’ skills match up to the requirements. With a resume, however, you can only guess who might be suitable based on proxies like education and experience.

It’s important to keep in mind that bias can still be a factor later on in the process, The screening stage is most often where a significant degree of bias prevents otherwise talented candidates from being given a chance. When you remove bias from screening, diversity will improve as a result.

If you can only make one change to your hiring process, make sure it’s work samples.

Why structured interviews and scoring criteria matter

When it comes to meeting candidates face to face (even if via video), there will naturally be some level of bias that affects your judgment.

However, there are some measures we can take to keep our decision-making as objective as possible so that candidates have an equal chance, regardless of their background.

A structured interview is where all candidates are asked the same questions in the same order. If you look back at the chart on predictive validity, you’ll see that structured interviews also rank highly in terms of how well they can predict candidate ability.

If you want to hire a diverse set of candidates, remember that their backgrounds will be diverse too – not everyone can attend the best universities and therefore get the best work experience.

For this reason, you should use work sample-style questions instead of probing into candidates’ backgrounds.

Before the hiring process kicks off, each work sample and interview question should be given its own criteria to score against.

Your criteria don’t need to be extensive; a simple 1-5 star scale will do.

You can then write a few bullet points explaining what an excellent, average, and poor answer might look like.

Here’s an example question with corresponding criteria for scoring:

Diversity hiring work sample question
(Source)

When it comes to the interview panel, you should have three reviewers.

This is to harness the power of “crowd wisdom” to ensure a more balanced assessment of the situation. When applied correctly, principles of crowd wisdom can help to counterbalance individual bias by providing alternative perspectives and counterpoints during the assessment process.

However, crowd wisdom can also degenerate into groupthink if not kept in check. The best way to prevent groupthink is to clearly define the roles and duties of each member of the interview panel, and have a section of the interview process dedicated to discussion where members can hold one another accountable and play devil’s advocate.

Assuming you have an adequate panel of individuals who understand their roles and responsibilities as recruiters, there should be room to ensure your crowd wisdom does not degenerate into groupthink.

If your team is big enough, having a different three interviewers for each interview round will give you the most unbiased scores – and help to improve diversity as time goes on.

Below are just some of the stereotypes that affect our judgment:

How stereotypes affect our perception of others

If one interviewer has an unconscious bias against a disabled candidate, for example, this should be averaged out by the scores of the other interviewers.

Document your diversity hiring process

Process documentation is the best way to ensure that your processes are completed consistently every time. The main benefit of process documentation is that it reduces training times and costs, and prevents the risk of human error.

You can either create your own process knowledge base using an application like Microsoft Office or Google docs, or you can use process documentation software, like Process Street.

There are a few advantages of using software (and thus having a completely digital knowledge base):

  • Anyone in your organization can access it from anywhere
  • It’s easily updated when changes are made
  • You don’t have to reorganize the entire knowledge base to add new processes

You want to make using your processes as easy for your employees as possible, otherwise, the processes simply aren’t working.

For example, here is a checklist template for an Unconscious Bias Training Guide:

This checklist is designed so that any employee can complete it on their own, in their own time, while HR is still kept apprised of their progress through the checklist dashboard.

A series of tasks that include information about the employee, the groups they identify with, and questions encourage the employee to engage with the material they’re reading rather than simply absorb it.

The section of “Seeing from different perspectives” asks the employee to not only imagine what biases another group might face, but put themselves in the position of someone facing that bias.

Finally, the checklist includes methods for reducing unconscious bias in the workplace. Afterward, HR is given the opportunity to review and approve (or decline) the employee’s training, providing both the HR representative and the employee space to discuss the training process, its effectiveness, and what the employee learned by completing it.

In Process Street’s public template library, you can find numerous templates (available for free with a Process Street account) for nearly every process in your organization. Features like stop tasks, conditional logic, and the ability to insert rich media into the checklists make them an invaluable training tool.

Some of the templates for diversity initiatives include:

Diversity Hiring Process Template
Run to perform a diversity and inclusion-focused hiring process. The HR team (with help from other team managers) should launch this process every time their company is looking to hire.

Diversity Training Process
Run this to undergo the process of diversity training. The checklist should be launched by managers from all departments and the HR staff every quarter, and when a new HR employee joins the company.

Diversity Questions Survey
Run this survey to provide your company’s HR team with diversity-related metrics, helping them to achieve their diversity quota and/or D&I goals.

Diversity Management Monthly Audit
Run this if you’re an HR manager looking to manage and audit your diversity operations. The audit should happen at the end of every month.

Diversity Initiatives Quarterly Improvement Process
Run this checklist to review and improve your company’s diversity initiatives. This will help you determine which initiatives are successful, and which aren’t. This is a quarterly checklist.

Diversity hiring as an investment

Completely transforming your hiring process is no small feat, especially when you’re removing the comfort blanket of resumes.

However, if we want to improve diversity, radical change is necessary. While diversity training is well-intentioned, the evidence shows that it doesn’t work.

Why? Because the unconscious bias that leads to discrimination cannot be trained out of people. Humans are prone to bias, and no amount of training will change that fact.

However, what we can change is environments, a tactic that behavioral scientists have used to achieve various outcomes, from increasing pension contributions to reducing gender bias in orchestras.

So, if we want to remove bias and therefore foster diversity, we have to change the process itself, rather than those who participate in it.

What steps has your organization taken to promote diversity in your hiring process? Share your experiences in the comments!

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Leks Drakos

Leks is a rogue academic with a penchant for future tech and retro cameras. When not writing for Process Street, he's busy researching monsters, posthumanism, post-apocalyptic narratives. Twitter: @leksikality [he/him]


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