Want Diversity? Counter Unconscious Biases That Limit Your Diversity Recruiting

Article main image
Dec 14, 2015
This article is part of a series called How-Tos.

Other than the recent conscious discrimination that has seemingly been encouraged by Donald Trump, most discrimination in modern times is extremely subtle and often unconscious. And although unconscious bias training is all the rage, it is not sufficient on its own to increase diversity recruiting. As a result, if you want to maximize diversity in corporate hiring, you have to proactively identify the dozen-plus subtle discriminatory factors that can occur during hiring.

These subtle unconscious factors, like job descriptions dominated with “male terms,” may initially seem inconsequential. But even though each one in isolation has a relatively minor impact, taken together the 13 factors identified here result in a formidable barrier to hiring diverse workers.

A lack of diversity is not just a legal issue; it has severe economic consequences to a corporation. As a result of limiting diversity, corporations miss out on a number of valuable business impacts. They include increased innovation, products that better fit the needs of a diverse customer base, a less-effective sales force, improved customer service, a broader criticism of new ideas, and an increased chance of attracting and retaining top performers, who almost always appreciate working in a diverse work environment. In most cases, adding a diverse worker (in any critical job) who thinks and acts differently may produce twice the value compared to adding just another “ordinary worker” who thinks and acts just like every other worker.

My team’s research has identified most of the major unconscious biases that occur in hiring, and fortunately, all of them can be minimized if you have the courage to take the correct proactive actions that are provided below (unfortunately, I find that most in HR lack that courage).

The Unconscious Biases in Hiring With Solutions for Each

I estimate that more than 50 percent of the biases that reduce diversity hiring come from identifiable and often unconscious bias factors. Based on my experience, those factors can be found below; they are listed from the highest to the lowest likely impacts.

  1. Biases when screening resumes — obviously if diverse candidates are screened out based on their resume, they can never get hired. Unfortunately low scores on factors that don’t always predict on-the-job success like grades, the schools they attended, grammar errors, and leadership roles can be detrimental to the chances of low-income, international, and diversity applicants. Even having an obviously diverse name on a resume may reduce its acceptance rate by as much as 50 percent. Solution — firms like Deloitte and Google have found that blocking or hiding the candidate’s name as well as other irrelevant factors can improve the number of diverse candidates who make it to the interview phase. Accepting LinkedIn profiles in lieu of resumes can improve your chances of landing employed diverse candidates who simply don’t have the time to update their resume.
  2. Job selection criteria that don’t predict but exclude — the criteria that are chosen to screen in or screen out candidates for the initial interview slate can have the second-largest impact on reducing diversity. Selection factors that can unconsciously restrict the number of accepted diversity applicants include requiring an excessive number of years of experience, advanced degrees, the college they attend, their grade point average, and a less-than-ideal previous job title. Solution  hiring managers are unfortunately notorious for requesting excessive qualifications which statistically diverse individuals are less likely to have. Educating hiring managers about how excessive hiring expectations unnecessarily reduces the qualified candidate pool and especially the diversity percentage can help. Google, GateGourmet, and Footlocker have all used data to identify and validate the real hiring criteria that actually predict success on the job.
  3. Interview questions covering factors that don’t predict — most recruiters and hiring managers determine what interview topics (and their related questions) to cover on an ad hoc basis, without any information on the potential biases related to each topic. This can result in the asking of questions that cover areas that are not valid predictors of on-the-job performance. Solution — firms like Google have a standard catalog of validated interview questions that only cover areas with a high prediction rate. Even if you don’t have a catalog, it’s still a good idea for HR to provide managers with a list of interview questions in advance that have been assessed to ensure that they don’t contain unconscious biases. After hiring successful diverse candidates, go back to see which interview questions actually predicted their on-the-job capabilities and which ones did not.
  4. Hiring manager bias — firms like Google have found that hiring managers all too often hire for their own selfish short-term needs, and not for the long-term good of the company. Tech firms like Facebook have in the past found that some hiring managers have cultural biases against hiring women and members of other cultural groups. Solution — track hiring managers and identify the ones who have a low diversity hiring success rate and require them to go through unconscious bias training. In addition, offer everyone involved in hiring (or all employees as Google did) the opportunity to go through “unconscious bias” education or training. It’s not perfect, but it does have a measurable impact. If you are really bold, follow Google’s lead and take managers out of the equation altogether. It uses hiring teams that include members that are really good at hiring but that are trained to hire for the long-term good of the company.
  5. Bias during sourcing — obviously if diverse prospects are never sourced, they can never be hired. Many of the most frequently used sourcing approaches or sites have a low diversity participation rate. For example, even employee referrals can be biased if employees only refer people similar to themselves. If you have primarily male sourcers, they will likely focus on male-dominated Internet/social media sites like GitHub, TheLadders, and Dice. Non-diverse recruiters may not even bother to look for women at female-dominated sites like Pinterest. Solution — track every sourcing approach and site in order to determine which ones are more likely to produce high-quality diversity candidates. Measure the sources that your recruiters use in order to ensure that they always check the sites that have proven to be effective (in that job family) for finding diverse prospects. Unlike average programs, data-driven employee referral programs that specifically target diverse individuals generally have the highest success rate of among all sourcing solutions. The NFL has had great success by requiring that each presented candidate slate must include at least one diverse individual. And Intuit once set guidelines that forbade all-male candidate slates from being presented to their hiring managers.
  6. In-person interview bias — during in-person interviews, it’s obviously possible to unconsciously or consciously judge the candidate’s diversity factors like race, sex, pregnancy, and age. Because the hiring manager knows that the individual is in a protected group, they might apply stereotypes during their hiring decisions. Solution — telephone interviews can help reduce visual biases, although some will unconsciously try to identify demographic factors from the person’s voice. Blind interviews, where the interviewee is behind a screen or is in another room, have been used by performance groups for years to minimize visual bias.
  7. Interviews don’t predict, so replace them with problem-solving — statistically, interviews have a very low predictive value. Because they are often unstructured events that are little more than subjective judgments in response to a series of questions where the candidate is trying to provide the most acceptable answer. Interviews are certainly not equivalent to working on the job. Solution — supplementing or replacing the interview with real problem-solving not only has less bias (diverse candidates may give diverse answers which can be superior to the average). But problem-solving forces everyone to focus on whether the candidate can actually do the job. Firms like Google give applicants a real on-the-job problem to solve either before they apply or during their interview. Many high-tech firms also use Internet contests to find and assess potential recruiting targets. Vendors (e.g. GapJumpers) now provide software that allows firms to assess capabilities in an online challenge prior to the heavily subjective elements of resume screening and interviewing. Other vendors provide online assessments of a candidate’s technical skills.
  8. Job postings/job descriptions contain subtle biases — job postings and their related longer job descriptions are often written using words that either doesn’t positively attract diverse candidates. In other cases, they contain words that may actually indicate to a diverse candidate that the firm is not favorable to diverse workers. Solution — Firms like Google have found that involving members of a targeted diverse group in the rewriting of descriptions can have a significant impact on the response rate from that group. Vendors now offer software (e.g. Gender Decoder) that can help identify and then help to replace words that reflect an unconscious bias.
  9. Assessing fit involves subtle biases — the goal of hiring for “fit” is to ensure that all employees have enough commonalities to allow them to work together as a unit. On the surface, it seems like a straightforward and logical goal. But it is a highly subjective assessment that seldom results in consistent fit assessment, on the same individual across managers. And because diverse individuals are by definition “different,” they seldom score high on fit assessment. And unfortunately, once you reject someone because they don’t appear to initially fit, you can never know whether they would actually fail to fit. Solution — I suggest dropping cultural fit assessment or, at least, conducting this assessment only at the very end of the hiring process after you’ve thoroughly assessed capabilities. You should also educate hiring managers on the fact that diverse individuals who come from a different background can almost always learn to adapt to a new culture and a new way of doing things.
  10. Lower negotiated salary offers — diverse individuals (and especially women) have been shown to be less willing to even attempt to negotiate a higher starting salary rate. And obviously, lower starting salaries will directly decrease the number of diversity hires. Solution — firms like Reddit and have boldly outlawed salary negotiations for all, in order to decrease this bias. A better solution is to encourage diverse individuals to negotiate hard. But also encourage Compensation to track internal salary offers to make sure there is no disparity between new hires from protected and not-protected groups.
  11. Voice bias during the telephone interview — because you can’t see the person during a telephone interview, they can be a lower bias alternative to face-to-face interviews. But there is still a possibility that interviewers will consciously or unconsciously try to guess the protected group from the candidate’s voice. Solution – offering online or in person” questionnaire interviews” eliminate both voice and visual biases. Interview questions are simply converted into a questionnaire format and then the candidate is asked to answer the interview questions on a computer. This approach has an added advantage of leaving a record of both the questions and the answers provided.
  12. A lack of diversity visibility during hiring — firms like Google have found that if diverse candidates don’t see other diverse individuals during the hiring process, it can discourage some diverse candidates. Solution — make sure that diverse recruiters are involved in the hiring process. And during interviews and department tours make sure that diverse candidates see and interact with others like them. Incidentally, having diverse individuals at the same job level at the initial contact dramatically increase diversity candidate response rates.
  13. Corporations make the mistake of lumping all diverse groups together — many in post-traditional and diversity recruiting make a huge mistake by lumping all diversity groups into a single category. Whenever you lump everyone together you not only stereotype but you show that you don’t realize or appreciate the real differences that occur among members of the many different protected groups. Although this lumping approach doesn’t result in unconscious bias, it does make finding and selling diverse candidates much more difficult. Solution — the appropriate action to take is to act like market research professionals. Use surveys and focus groups to identify specifically how they look for a job and the unique approaches that are required in order to successfully recruit members from each individual targeted diverse group. Then customize or personalize the recruiting approach as much as possible, so that the unique needs of the diverse individual being targeted are met.

Don’t Forget the Importance of Building a Strong Business Case for Diversity

Although initially it might not seem directly relevant to limiting unconscious biases, you won’t be able to implement effective solutions if you don’t have the cooperation of hiring managers and the resources required in order to implement changes. Start out by working with the CFO’s office (the undisputed king of metrics and funding) in order to ensure that your business case is solid. Next, get a senior manager to agree to be an executive sponsor of your diversity recruiting effort.

If you expect to impress all of the other executives, don’t focus on simply improving recruiting results. Go the next step and show how increased diversity hiring directly impacts revenue customer service, innovation, and other strategic business goals. Be sure and show the statistical correlation between an increase in the diversity percentage of a team and the improvement in the team’s business results. Also, show how diversity hires become top performers using forced ranking, performance appraisal scores, or ranked outputs. And finally, focus your efforts on highly influential managers and show them how improved diversity recruiting will not only improve their business results but that it will also increase their bonus payout and promotability. After these managers see their improved results, encourage them to spread the word to other managers and executives about the effectiveness and the impact of your diversity recruiting effort.

Final Thoughts

Most corporations approach hiring as an art and the lack of structure resulting from that approach creates a significant amount of conscious and unconscious bias and discrimination. A superior approach is to use a data-driven approach to recruiting. This approach begins by statistically identifying the specific points in the hiring funnel where you lose a disproportionate percentage of diversity applicants. Once you find those major loss points, identify the root causes for those losses at each point. Next, apply proven benchmark best practices in order to see which ones have the highest positive impact on relieving the barriers at each loss point. And finally measuring, recognizing, and rewarding hiring managers and recruiters for successful diversity recruiting will make everyone more interested in quickly producing diversity recruiting results.

I should also note that given all of the recent publicity and emotions related to those who practice the Muslim religion, I recommend that recruiting leaders proactively become fully aware of the increased likelihood of additional conscious or unconscious religious bias in the hiring process, at least over the next few months.

This article is part of a series called How-Tos.
Get articles like this
in your inbox
Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting articles about talent acquisition emailed weekly!