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How to Address Bias in Your Hiring Strategy

If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail – so the old idiom goes. Such is true in recruitment too, and has been for the last century.

Hiring bias occurs when only one kind of voice sits at the table where important decisions are made. 

“We are an equal opportunity employer.” We’ve all read that sentence, as it’s used in nearly every job description and often included in internal and external communications. But what does it really mean? What steps should your team be taking to make that accurate and genuine? In reality, it’s hard to be an equal opportunity employer. It’s hard to make conscious choices towards real equality, and simply put, it’s hard to hire without any bias.  

You might be wondering how big of an impact a potential hiring bias has on your company. Well, Deloitte conducted some research that included surveys from 3000 employees across large U.S. corporations – they found that 84 percent of respondents said bias negatively affected their happiness, confidence, and well-being. 

For 75 percent, the bias they experienced negatively influenced how engaged they felt in the workplace. And just over 68 percent said bias adversely affected their workplace productivity. 

Culture Adds vs Culture Fits   

The reason there are so many mediocre company cultures that look and sound the same is that most are only looking for candidates that fit into their current mold – they aren’t actively trying to find people who will bring something new or unexpected to the table. Bold ideas and real-life experience outside of the status quo should be celebrated and embraced, not feared or ignored, especially if the culture is built on a solid foundation. 

Workable interviewed Diane Hessan, CEO of The Startup Institute about how to minimize hiring bias and foster diversity in the workplace. The institute surveyed employees from 300 companies about what makes a great hire. They found that soft skills are valued more than technical skills and a high IQ. It turns out, according to Diane, that what most companies value is “the ability to work in an unclear, unstructured, stressful environment without freaking out.” This is good news for startups and scaleups because, let’s be honest, small businesses are as scrappy as they come. Therefore, it could be considered a blessing when you arrive at candidates who are motivated, hungry and not too engrained in any legacy silos or specific work cultures. 

Being selective is different from being biased 

That being said, not all bias is bad – in fact, selective hiring is indeed necessary. Selective hiring provides filters for desired skillsets, desired behaviours or anything specific to the success of the role and the team overall. But bias is sneaky, and it can lead to decisions that reduce your inclusivity and success. For instance, disqualifying candidates based on things like unexplained gaps in their resume, past work in unrelated fields or taboo industries, the school they went to, etc., could lead to the loss of wonderful contributors to your team. If you have a strong, formatted interview process, you should be able to identify what the real red flags are in a candidate (like not knowing anything about your company, or contradicting their own answers), rather than tripping over false alarms. But if you’re asking candidates what animal they think they are in the interview… you’re doing it wrong.  

The Halo Effect 

On the opposite end, it can be easy to hire people because you have a lot in common, or if you relate to them. Sometimes we get excited because a candidate followed a similar career journey to us, may have attended the same university, or has worked at a company we love. While these things give us good context, it’s important to address that these things don’t represent the candidate’s experience or how well they can perform. This is a phenomenon coined the Halo Effect by psychologist Edward Thorndike in the 1920s; it’s the belief that because a person possesses one trait we really like, they must also possess others. It requires diligence to ensure our biases don’t become our blinders. And this makes it all the more important to make sure more than one person is involved in the hiring process. You’re much more likely to find culture adds than clones if you have different people in the room interpreting the candidate’s answers. 

Steps to reduce bias in your own hiring practices 

There are many different things that can help make a difference, for your hiring and your team. 

1. Respect pronouns 

Suggest your employees add chosen pronouns to email signatures, paperwork and accounts, if they are comfortable. We all have pronouns, even if we don’t always acknowledge ours, and it’s important to give them a space to be shared so that everyone can be addressed the correct way. By giving your employees room to express themselves, prevents bias around pronouns or how people choose to use them. LinkedIn was a trailblazer in this regard when it added the feature to include pronouns in user profiles, making accounts unique, personable and inclusive.  

2. Learn from diverse candidates  

If you come across a name that you don’t know how to pronounce, don’t hesitate to do a bit of research and/or ask the candidate to teach you! Taking the time to learn someone’s name shows a lot of awareness and respect, and should be essential. This also helps eliminate bias against names that we don’t recognize. 

3. Take more time with resumes 

When going through a resume, try and ask yourself why you like this candidate, or why you don’t like them. Are these elements relevant to their capacity to do the job well? While it is important to quantify skill requirements, years in the industry, certifications, past experience, or tech requirements, don’t just look for keywords and skills before tossing a resume into the proverbial wastebin. Circle and highlight things that jump off the page that make them unique – that could be what makes the difference between a future leader or a clock-puncher. You can also use software! There are some applications like Pinpoint that actually gives you the ability to conduct blind screening. The program will remove real names and replace them with fake ones leaving behind only their credentials and experience, making it easier for you to remove unconscious bias from the process.  

4. Hire for equity instead of equality or diversity 

Remember that some candidates haven’t had the privilege that others have had. For example, you might come across women who haven’t had the opportunity to lead because of gender discrimination, or who’ve struggled to get into leadership positions or male-dominated fields like STEM and business analysis. Here’s the difference: when you approach hiring from a diversity or equality perspective, you’re setting the bar pretty low because all you really have to do is chase after visible minorities or disabilities to fill a quota – the exact opposite of what you should be doing. When you think equity-first, you are putting diverse people in charge, you are actively supporting and encouraging equitable growth, and you are including the ideas of these employees in very important business decisions so that your business reflects on the people who build it, not just the people who own it. Hiring and promoting solely for equality is why, in Canada, women still only make up 10% of newly-named executives in Canada’s 100 largest companies. And BIPOC women comprise less than 2% of that number. 

5. Don’t let anti-discrimination laws stop you from getting creative with equitable hiring 

Employers face an ethical dilemma when it comes to hiring: they must be equal opportunity employers, which many have taken to mean a merit-first, colour-blind selection of candidates. While this practice is good and practical in theory, it assumes that every applicant is entering the competition on an even playing field. Unfortunately, this just isn’t the case. Hiring on merit and experience alone can exclude people based on age, language, and disability, let alone race and gender. There are other ways: try conducting a diversity audit, adjusting wording in your recruiting materials to be more inclusive, check out different job boards, and, most importantly, develop an employer brand that showcases your commitment to diversity. 

 

“You need to be creating an environment where people of color have leadership that is invested in them because diversity training only goes so far.” – Laura McGee, CEO, Diversio 

 

6. Involve your diverse members in recruitment marketing  

When you are preparing to hire a new candidate for a specific role, one resource you should always have in your back pocket is a candidate persona that speaks to the ideal employee you want. Where many companies go wrong is in deciding who builds it. Some think the CEO or founder knows best; other times, it is a low priority, bunted to an individual in the marketing team. But really, this should be a company-wide exercise that includes members from every department and at every level of seniority. Only when you give your diverse team members a voice in the hiring process will you build out a truly reliable persona. Beyond personas, they should also be included in any copywriting or storytelling for candidate facing messaging, including on your careers page, your social channels, job postings etc… essentially anywhere a candidate might find you.  

7. Promote diverse leaders to your C-Suite 

As Diversio CEO Laura McGee previously put it to Pivot + Edge, “you need to be creating an environment where people of colour have leadership that is invested in them, because diversity training only goes so far.” She adds that while training and the implicit association bias test are good starts, actually having a performance metric on inclusivity tied to compensation is another really good way to thank inclusive behavior.  

Alberta-based gas company Transalta stands as a solid example of a large, traditional business that was able to overcome odds and transform its work culture into a progressive environment dedicated to building up employees with diverse backgrounds. With a female CEO at the helm, they report on their diversity and inclusion in their SEC filings and on their website and their performance is measured against these metrics.  

Making diversity and inclusion a priority is a necessity in 2021. But don’t take it from us – Glassdoor reported that 76 percent of job seekers and employees today say a diverse workforce is an important factor when evaluating companies and job offers.  

And yet, overcoming subconscious biases is no small undertaking.  

It can take years to cultivate a workplace with diverse representation, especially if the company is massive. Some businesses may never get it right. But if you start with building an infrastructure that recognizes and accommodates inclusive mandates instead of jumping into a hiring frenzy with a diversity checklist, you’re going to make a more meaningful impact. Not just for your employees, but for your company’s public image and long-term viability. 

 

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