How can we address unconscious bias in the hiring process?

Our eight-year-old came home recently and declared she no longer wanted to use her given name and wanted to be called something else. We immediately leaned in, thinking she was being bullied or teased. We found out it was something quite different. A student in her class, with the support of the principal and a family member, announced that going forward, this classmate no longer wanted to be called Jane, but to be called Jay.

She wondered why we were asking so many questions. “It’s not a big deal, you know.” We both sat there expressionless. Any eight-year-old would probably take this in stride, but to most adults, it’s a very big deal. However, it shouldn’t be.

This conversation I had with my daughter is actually part of a much bigger picture, especially when it comes to HR and hiring because of our conscious and unconscious biases.

As a recruiter I need to remain objective about my clients and candidates alike. The truth is, unconscious bias is more common than we’d like to accept. We don’t notice it, but it comes in many shapes and forms. If your unconscious bias to a name, or a gender, or a race steers you away from hiring an individual, you may deprive your team of the opportunity to discover  innovation.

Unconscious bias is the reason why people with unique or unfamiliar sounding names usually don’t get to the top of the resume pile. It’s the reason why we might view male candidates as more qualified than female candidates. And, it’s part of the reason why companies end up with employees who look, dress and sound alike. We express affinity bias by treating people who went to the same college, like the same sports team or come from the same home town differently from those who did not.

Gender, age and race bias can occur in face-to-face interviews, when it’s easier to consciously or subconsciously judge a candidate based on how they look. Studies have proven that even job descriptions hold unconscious bias depending on which words are used. Some words, like “understanding” are more associated with women, while words like “analytical” are usually associated with men. Confirmation bias is when we actively look for clues that prove what we already think about someone else. The list goes on.

Our unconscious biases are all different. Although we are all wired to view the world based on how and where we grew up, it doesn't have to be this way.

Think about the different way you might view the world if you learned a right-to-left alphabet versus a left-to-right alphabet. Cognitive science tells us that the way we learn to process language has everything to do with how we process the world.

Imagine the power of a team that can combine those amazingly different ways of seeing a problem and formulating a solution to it. It’s hard to rewire ourselves away from these biases, but this wiring is breaking a critical link between diversity and innovation.

Most companies know they should focus on diversity, but managers frequently struggle to give it the attention it deserves. According to recent report by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 41 percent of managers say they’re “too busy” to execute diversity initiatives. It’s a clear sign that to make an impact, diversity needs to be placed higher on the priority lists of staff, managers and executives alike.

Even though we can’t necessarily control our unconscious bias, it doesn’t mean that we can’t become more aware of it and make hiring decisions that promote and embrace diversity.

Focusing on improving diversity is an “all hands on deck” project. It’s not up to just managers, HR or executives. It’s something that the entire company needs to be thinking about and working on regularly.

There are many benefits to having a diverse workplace. Embracing diversity allows staff to offer more varied perspective, unique experiences, talents and ways of doing work. For example, one hiring manager I know had a huge customer support issue. Nothing was working and people were burning out quickly. This hiring manager took a chance on a candidate he otherwise might not have, and she ended up reworking the process to slow it down. She used a “take time to save time” approach, which was unique to her cultural and education background and perhaps a function of her gender too.

By ignoring unconscious bias, companies would miss out on hiring potentially incredible employees -- all because they weren’t “ideal” in the mind of the person who first read their resume.

So, how can we collectively work on improving the hiring process to avoid unconscious bias?

It will take courage and leadership from not just people at HR departments, but from executives and leaders working in all departments of a company. Everyone must take ownership of this issue and not treat it as just another “thing” devised by the HR department to add to the pile of existing work.

One way we can nip unconscious bias in the bud is by becoming ultra-aware of the verbiage HR professionals use while crafting job descriptions. For example, job descriptions with words like “ninja,” “boastful” and “analytical” are more likely to ward off female applicants, while words like “collaborate,” “resilient” and “self-aware” are more inclusive and gender neutral.

And when it comes to the actual interview process, we can implement structured panel interviews that use a grading system to provide a 360 degree view of candidates. That way, hiring decisions aren’t made just by one or two people, but by many across different departments and roles in the company. This also allows candidates to be weighed on other competency factors instead of just by personality or from a first impression.

Many companies, and even entire states, are already fully aware of these issues around unconscious bias and have taken action.

Last year, Massachusetts Legislature passed the first equal pay law of its kind in the US. It prevents employers from asking candidates about their compensation history until after a job offer is made. Of course, candidates aren’t required to share that information. What this means is that a company can’t make an offer based on the previous salary of an applicant. Additionally, the law prevents companies from restricting conversations about salaries in the office.

Google is paving the way for the elimination of unconscious bias in the hiring process. The company has candidates meet with several different staff members from different departments. Members in each interview could include people who will be working above them, below them and even someone who isn’t even in their department. Where possible, Google also uses a sample test to measure competency instead of just relying on face-to-face interviews.

We should all, at a minimum, look beyond the 10 seconds that make up our first impressions and get deeper into structured interviews that measure competencies and cognitive ability. By becoming aware of our unconscious biases and the way they affect our hiring decisions, we can come one step closer to fostering creativity and innovation.

As far as my daughter? Last weekend I asked her if she had thought of any names she would like to be called and she replied, “Nah, it was just a phase, I’m over it.”

And if you want to discuss unconscious bias in the workplace or how to foster diversity, feel free to reach out directly at

Are you interested in seeing where your own unconscious bias stands? I encourage you to take an IAT (Implicit Association Test) through Harvard University’s Project Implicit. There are a handful of tests there, and the results may surprise you.