Tackling Unconscious Bias in your Recruitment Process8 min read

Tackling unconscious bias in recruitment process

When thinking about building a diverse and inclusive team, many companies are quick to classify it as a ‘pipeline problem’: you’re not getting enough diverse applicants, or the diverse applicants aren’t of the right quality. But is your hiring process actually contributing to this pipeline problem?

Here are 8 small but extremely impactful ways you encourage bias in your hiring processes that you may not realise.

1) Education requirements

Does the type of university your applicant attended and/or the grade they received really matter? Many people may not have the means or the opportunity to attend the Russell Group or the Ivy League universities of the world. The university they attended or the grade they received shouldn’t be the sole measure of a candidate.

Do you really want to rule out an otherwise great candidate because they didn’t get the ‘right’ grades at university? You could be unnecessarily ruling out strong candidates from different backgrounds by adding a roadblock that doesn’t reflect their true capabilities. 

Suggestion: Remove the “2.1 from top university” from the top of your requirements. If it really is important to have university-educated team members, replace with “degree-educated” – or leave it off entirely. And remember: the requirement criteria in your job description should be in order of your most important requirements.

2) Pictures of your candidate

Some Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) allow candidates to upload a photo in the default application process, or you may be tempted to make it an option in your application flow. Think about what value this is actually adding to their application and how this impacts your evaluation of the candidate. 

To use a stereotypical example, a female photo on an application for a developer role may lead to that application unconsciously being judged more harshly than one with a male photo (similar, but not the same: this study found that software developers on GitHub respond to contributions differently when they know there are women behind them).

Suggestion: Most ATS allow you to opt out of the photo upload, which you should definitely take where possible. Whilst opting out might not hide when a candidates CV has been uploaded with a picture, you at least remove the temptation of evaluating a candidate on more than just their professional profile.

3) Social media profiles

Some ATS’ also search the world wide web to provide you with various social media profiles for a candidate. Ask yourself, beyond maybe a Linkedin or GitHub profile, whether someone’s social media profiles actually give you any insight to their ability to excel in a job role.

Suggestion: Screen the candidate based on the profiles available to you from their CV or covering letter. Where possible, opt out of accessing the automated social media profiles where possible. And if you can’t – avoid the temptation of sneakily checking out your candidate’s holiday photos on the gram! 

If the role requires a portfolio of previous work, make sure you ask for it in the application process. Don’t rely on automated tools to scrape that from their internet presence. 

4) Name Bias 

Research suggests that candidates from minority ethnic backgrounds with a non Anglicised name are less likely to be progressed for jobs, among many other things. A truly “Blind” CV reviewing process is the best way to tackle name bias – an unconscious bias that is often felt as a gut decision when you’re evaluating candidates.

If you’re assessing for culture fit, can you clearly articulate why one person is a ‘good fit’ where another isn’t – based solely on their written application? Hold yourself accountable in this respect: why are you saying Yes/No to this candidate? Can you reasonably explain how they do not fit in to your criteria without saying “I just have a feeling about it”. 

Suggestion: There are some great tools that can enable you to have a completely blind application process. However these can often be expensive, so if that’s beyond your budget, take time to understand unconscious bias and how that can affect your hiring decisions. 

For example, at SaaStock, we openly discuss unconscious bias to help our team understand their own biases better and often have the Hiring and HR Managers screen candidates separately and ensure we have set criteria that we are screening for in order to avoid any “gut decision” being made by either person. 

We also suggest restructuring your application process a little: consider asking initial screening questions about a candidate’s experience first (to rule out candidates based on skills or experience) before you review their CV (though we still recommend being flexible with some requirements to increase your applicant pool as much as possible). 

5) Gender Bias

The words and phrases you use in your job description will affect the pool of candidates who apply for that job. Words in your job description can be interpreted as “masculine” or “feminine” and as such, without realising, you’ve massively reduced your candidate pool. Consider whether your job description reflects your company values and whether it truly reflects the kind of candidate you are looking for. 

Suggestion: An easy way to tackle this is to run your job description through a tool like Gender Decoder before publishing it. This will help you understand which buzzwords or phrases you are using that inadvertently reinforce gender biases. 

And if your company is growing quickly with a lot of hiring happening at once, try to make your job descriptions as uniform as possible in terms of format and non job-specific requirements. Once you have a solid template, each hiring manager can then use it to tailor for their role. Additionally, an extra pair (or a few pairs) of eyes is always helpful to pick up on words or phrases that you may not realise encourage bias before you make the role live.

6) Referrals

Whilst referrals are extremely valuable because you can often trust the people you know already, you have to be mindful that this can often lead to biases and reduce diversity of applicants and people joining your team. 

As humans, we’re prone to what’s called ‘affinity bias’: favouring people who you think you connect with more because they may look like you, have similar interests or characteristics. If you’re relying on referrals during your hiring process, does this help you hire from a diverse pool of candidates, or does it just further reinforce an affinity bias?

Suggestion: Encourage referrals as they will help you find relevant candidates that you have a personal recommendation for, but be mindful to also put the candidate through your standardised interview process as much as possible. Do not let a recommendation cloud you from making a equitable evaluation of the candidate, and always remember, there may be other candidates better suited for the role. 

7) Standardise your interview questions

Further reinforcing affinity bias, unplanned questions are great but without a formal interview structure you may be prone to asking “tougher” or “easier” questions to certain candidates without realising because you are more likely to unconsciously favour people that you think are more like you. 

Standardising the questions we ask and asking our hiring team for evaluations based on these questions really helps us ensure we are actively trying to avoid clouded evaluations based on similarities or likeability.

Suggestion: At SaaStock, as we create a job description for each role we want to hire for, we create a hiring page for the role. We use this to break down each interview stage, with a set of questions to ask at each stage. We also split out our in person (or virtual) interview questions, with “technical” – job specific questions, and separate “culture fit” questions that are based on the values that we have set out as a company and evaluate how the candidate could perform against these values. 

8) Making a snap judgement

The biggest thing to bear in mind when recruiting is to never rule out a candidate because you “have a feeling” about them. Make sure you evaluate each candidate against a specific set of requirements or values, and can at least explain to yourself why they do not match the requirements for the role. 

When you are the sole person on a small hiring team, it is very easy to make a split second judgement and not second guess yourself when doing it. We encourage you to not only start understanding your own unconscious biases, but to also start challenging yourself and others as you go through the hiring process. If you cannot explain out loud and with good reason why you are saying no to a candidate, the chances are you’ve made a snap judgement that is potentially a biased judgement. You won’t do better if you don’t start challenging yourself and others in these moments. 

Closing thoughts 

Making just a few small tweaks to the way you evaluate candidates can make your hiring process more inclusive and diversify the candidate pool you have for the roles you hire for. I say that eliminating your unconscious bias is often a lifelong process of learning and unlearning, and in the same way, better hiring is also a continuously changing process and accepting that no process is going to be perfect and being open to learning (and unlearning) is a great first step

Here’s a short list of tools, resources and job boards that I have come across or have used myself that may be helpful for you:

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