A level playing field: how to eliminate bias in recruitment

6 minutes

A level playing field: how to eliminate bias in recruitment

When it comes to decision making in recruitment, unconscious bias can prove problematic

Like it or not, unconscious bias forms an inherent part of social interaction between people. When it comes to decision-making in talent acquisition, however, this innate trait can prove problematic.

Ask any seasoned manager or recruiter, and they’ll tell you that one of the biggest stumbling blocks to successful talent acquisition is bias.

Unconscious bias, known in academic circles as implicit bias, is one of the biggest hurdles to diversity within a business. In STEM fields, employers tend to recruit men over women. Meanwhile, in the UK, job applicants with “Western-sounding” names are more likely to get an interview than applicants with foreign-sounding names. In some cases, overweight people have even been discriminated against.

Not only is this deeply discriminatory, but it’s also bad for business. According to a study from the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), companies with a diverse workforce yield 19% higher profits than those with uniform people. So why does this regressive recruitment trend continue?

In the quest to recruit the right candidate, unintentional preferences can mask managers’ ability to objectively evaluate a candidate. Worse still, these biases can paint an inaccurate picture of a candidate’s skillset and competencies. If businesses continue to allow intuition and instinct to manipulate the interview process, the best people are likely to slip through their grasp contributing to the growing problem of attrition.

All staffing teams want to develop a fair, robust recruitment process. To ensure this happens, businesses need to adopt strategies that overcome these biases and promote equality.

Just how biased is the human mind?

Research has suggested that our unconscious mind is bombarded with 11 million pieces of information at any given time, but our conscious mind can only handle around forty.

To help us make decisions quickly without overwhelming us, our brain creates shortcuts. However, this gives even the most open-minded of us an unconscious bias — informing our high-stakes decision-making without us even realising it.

To prove how unconscious bias can perpetuate stereotypical recruitment practices, researchers recorded real interviews from the moment that candidates knocked on the door to 10 seconds after they’d taken a seat.

The footage was then shown to ‘naive observers’ who rated the candidates based on ten variables: employability, competency, intelligence, ambition, trustworthiness, confidence, nervousness, warmth, politeness, likeability, and expressiveness.

For nine of these variables, the judgments of the observers correlated significantly with those of the interviewer. This means that judgments made in the first 10 seconds — a handshake and a brief introduction — can predict the outcome of the entire interview.

Interview performance is a skill that can be improved by practice and research. These days, everything a candidate needs to know about the company or even the interviewers themselves can be accessed via some quick online research — giving them the opportunity to tailor their answers to the specific interests of the audience.

And yet, no matter how many great candidates are interviewed and no matter how difficult the decision, many managers never consider the unsuccessful candidates again. Deep-lying biases cause employers to actively overlook talented people. It’s a lose-lose situation for all involved.

How does unconscious bias affect recruitment decisions?

"[Unconscious biases] cause us to make decisions in favour of one person or group to the detriment of others."

Francesca Gino, professor at Harvard Business School

There are three interconnected types of unconscious bias that influence decision-making during the interview process: first impression bias, affinity bias and confirmation bias.

First impression bias occurs when a candidate walks through the door. Subconsciously, if a candidate looks great and sounds great, managers often leap to the assumption that they will, therefore, perform great. By viewing a candidate through rose-tinted glasses from the outset, diligence fades and staffing judgement becomes clouded.

After a good first impression, affinity bias can cause interviewers to gravitate towards candidates with whom they share an affinity or similar qualities this can include studying at the same university, hailing from the same town or even something as insignificant as having a similar dress sense.

Of course, affinity bias is misleading. It can cause managers to project greater strengths and capabilities onto candidates without being able to qualify or quantify them.

Confirmation bias is arguably the most elusive of the three primary biases. It can cause managers to only seek out and absorb information that confirms pre-existing assumptions made during first impression bias and affinity bias.

Worse still, confirmation bias can cause us to disengage with any information that contradicts those early assumptions.

All people are susceptible to these biases, and most of the time interviewers may not even be aware they are being influenced by them. As such, it’s vital that companies take the right steps to identify bias and then diminish it wherever possible.

Tips for eliminating bias

Understand what recruiting prejudices are and how they operate.

Awareness training can facilitate this. Create a conversation in your organisation about bias and how to mitigate it.

Improve job adverts.

Words matter. Studies show that the words companies use in job adverts can deter the best candidates from applying. Use neutral adjectives or alternate between feminine and masculine words. Software programmes that highlight gendered wording can help to alleviate biased language.

Don’t be the only interviewer.


Before making the decision, have at least three or four other people speak to the candidate. They offer a different perspective and may ask questions that a lone interviewer may not consider due to clouded judgment. Feedback from others should supplement the data you’ve collected about the candidate not impact it.

Call on a diverse panel.

If the members of an interview panel all share a similar affinity bias, the chance of selecting a candidate based on criteria such as competencies is diminished. Select a panel that is diverse in terms of gender, age, ethnicity, social background and experience.

Standardise the interview process.

It’s natural for interviewers to ‘click’ with certain candidates on a personal level and assume they will be a good cultural fit. However, this is yet another example of affinity bias encroaching on the process. Every candidate should be given an equal chance to impress, so be sure to follow the same protocol for each interview.

Ask every candidate the same targeted questions.


According to research, unstructured interviews are the worst indicators of on-the-job performance, even though managers tend to favour this approach. Instead, ask pointed questions based on job-based competencies. Structured criteria can minimise bias and help you focus on the factors that have a direct impact on performance.

Keep the setting consistent.

Make sure to conduct the interview in the same setting for all candidates not some in the office and others via Skype. Research also suggests that unconscious bias is heightened when time pressures or other distractions exist. If possible, try to hold interviews at similar times of the day so that interviewers and interviewees are met with similar conditions.

Use a rubric.

A rubric is a scoring guide used to evaluate the quality of a candidates’ responses to questions posed in the interview.

After interviewing, select a numerical range and rate each person. When creating the rubric, conduct industry-specific research to identify three to five must-haves that can provide a quantifiable insight on observable behaviour. Define the bar you want your candidate to set and ensure your interviewers score these must-haves on the rubric. Remember, a rubric is only useful if you can justify your scores, so treat it as one of many data points when making the final decision.

Try to quantify likeability.

Liking a candidate is one of the things most likely to impact the final decision. In some businesses, this trait is more important than others. If it’s an important part of your candidate attraction strategy, give likeability a score. By quantifying likeability, as you would another trait or skill, you can make it more controllable.

Don’t rely on memory.

When conducting an interview, always take notes. Memory is a notoriously unreliable support system for decision-making. Far from conveying accurate depictions of past events, our memory is a constellation of interpretations that are influenced by our present-day knowledge, experiences and expectations. Without taking notes, the mental recall of managers will likely support their initial biases.

Write down as much as the candidate’s verbatim response as possible to avoid clashing with your own interpretations. Straight after the interview, write down your initial thoughts before they get subsumed by other tasks and are committed to memory.

The key takeaways

Unconscious bias is a natural human reaction. There’s no denying that. But with a little systematic tinkering and some forward-thinking interview planning, businesses can build an interview process that doesn’t block opportunities for talented people.

All said and done, here are the key pointers worth remembering:

  • Be aware of your own thoughts throughout the process, and treat strong reactions to candidates as potential unconscious bias flags.
  • Confirm that all language in candidate-facing communication is neutral and inclusive.
  • Strive to quantify important subjective traits such as likeability, so as to keep them on a level playing field with attributable qualities (e.g. knowledge of the sector).
  • Ensure that the candidate journey is the same for every applicant who participates in the recruitment process.
  • Write everything down.

Eliminating bias altogether is a difficult ask, but by following these steps, your business can cultivate more inclusive processes — improving candidate experience and embedding a more diverse company culture.

Impellam’s vision is to be the world’s most trusted staffing company – trusted by our people, our customers and our investors in equal measure. It’s essential that we understand and address the root causes of inequality to ensure all of our people and candidates are able to reach their full potential and are provided with good work which gives them fulfilment and a sense of purpose.

We work across a variety of sectors and understand the challenges and opportunities that diversity in the workplace can present. If you would like to work together to build a better business through diversity, regardless of your sector, click here to reach out to one of our Impellam Group brands to help.

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