The importance of naming and addressing institutional racism has many people focusing on what can be done—as individuals and as employers—to improve diversity, inclusion, and understanding in an organization. Below are several resources and recommendations from experts at the Harvard Business School, along with actions you can take now to make a lasting difference.

What is Unconscious Bias?

Unconscious or implicit bias is the term for the mental processes that cause a person to act in ways that reinforce stereotypes even when in our conscious mind we would deem that behavior counter to our value system. Closely related to unconscious bias is affinity bias in which people tend to gravitate towards others who look, act, and think as they do.

In recruiting specifically, unconscious bias and affinity bias often express themselves as a preference for one candidate or another because of “culture fit.” Resumes may be selected because of a shared alma mater, or because of an unconscious bias to one name over another. Or, a candidate may be selected over others because “I could see myself hanging out with them after work.”

As HBS Professor Youngme Moon noted in an HBS After Hours Podcast, “There are so many industries that have a history of relying on the "soft stuff," and the soft stuff has worked in the favor of a particular kind of individual. The truth is the soft stuff is often a euphemism, in many cases, for bias; for people being able to use their discretion to hire people who are just like them, that they are comfortable with, that look like them, that act like them, and talk like them.”

Why Addressing Unconscious Bias Benefits Your Organization

Making choices that are unconsciously rooted in bias is detrimental to individuals and the organization as a whole because it creates a workplace that is lacking in diversity. Diversity across all facets of the workforce including, but not limited to, race, socioeconomic status, gender, and sexual orientation, brings together individuals who each contribute unique experiences and perspectives. This diversity within organizations fosters better problem-solving, innovation, and thoughtful strategic planning.

Furthermore, studies have shown that talented candidates seek out diverse work environments. Overcoming unconscious bias in your hiring has a ripple effect of building an exceptional team that attracts exceptional candidates.

Unconscious bias and a resulting lack of diversity can also impact a company’s bottom line. A study of venture capital firms found that “the more similar the investment partners, the lower their investments’ performance.” A study by The National Bureau of Economic Research found that the financial gains of diversity are not limited to venture capital but also expand to goods and service-based businesses.

Addressing Unconscious Bias in Recruiting

There are excellent resources to help train your managers and employees to confront unconscious bias, and we encourage companies to invest time and resources into this important work.

Review Job Descriptions

Job descriptions have always been an important element of the hiring process. They serve as a marketing tool to attract candidates and the language used can unconsciously tell people or groups that they are not the right fit. When crafting your job description use inclusion language and try the “flip test” to gauge whether your personal experience or unconscious bias has impacted word choice. Candidates will be relying heavily on your company’s written materials, make them count. If your company has Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging effforts and resources, be sure to include that information in your job description.

Be Aware of Bias on Video

When having an in-person informational conversation or interview, the backdrop is generally at your office or on campus. With virtual recruiting, those conversations will happen using video calls where the background may be the candidate’s home. As remote work has become more common, you may have experienced the distraction of where your colleagues are and what noises you may hear in the background. The same will be true in hiring.

Candidates may not own computers that are compatible with Zoom backgrounds, could be sharing living space with limited private quiet areas, or managing multiple responsibilities including child or elder care. None of these factors impact how well a candidate could do the job. Being aware of how background visuals and noise impact your perspective of a candidates' professionalism or fit is critical and can help to address unconscious bias head on by naming it. Another option – offer candidates the choice for a phone or online call with the video off in early interactions if that is most comfortable.

Standardize the Interview

In non-standardized interviews, there may be a set of questions guiding the conversation, but there is little consistency across the experience for candidates. Often this is where unconscious bias can manifest itself. Candidates may not have the same opportunity to effectively tell their story and showcase their fit for a role.

In a standardized interview, each candidate is asked the same questions in the same order. HBS Professor Francesca Gino notes that this type of interview process helps to reduce unconscious bias by “focusing on the factors that have a direct impact on performance.” Craft a list of questions that are aligned directly with what will define success in this role and remove any that are superfluous or could exacerbate bias. Also, ensure that multiple people within your company either sit in on the interview or conduct their own standard individual interviews so that candidate success is evaluated with different perspectives.

Another way to standardize the interview process is to include work sample tests. This concept is like a case-based interview in which candidates are asked to solve a problem similar to one the company may face. Through this process employers can assess candidates' skills objectively instead of relying on the candidate’s own assessment of their ability. Furthermore, if two candidates are both given a work sample test, they can be evaluated side by side based on their work, not the employer’s unconscious bias that may influence their judgement.

Key Takeaways

  • Unconscious bias exists in recruiting, and it is the responsibility of employers to both name it and address it in order to create diverse and successful organizations.
  • Ensure you are writing inclusive job descriptions so a diverse range of candidates enters your application pool.
  • Be aware of how video background and noise out of a candidate’s control influence your perception and offer alternatives.
  • Standardize your interview process so that each candidate answers the same questions and performs the same work tests to ensure a fair performance review including multiple perspectives.

Additional Resources

Read the articles below for more resources on how to tackle unconscious bias in your recruiting process and in the workplace.