Reducing Unconscious Bias in Recruiting


by Molly Brennan

Ideally, the decision to hire someone is based on how well someone’s skill set aligns with your needs. But in the real world, hiring processes are often subjective and affected by some degree of bias…whether you know it or not.

Bias-prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another-is everywhere, impacting many of our decisions, especially those based on snap judgments. “Unconscious bias” refers to the subjective decision-making that happens automatically when our brain makes quick judgments and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment, and personal experiences.

While unconscious bias isn’t necessarily deliberate or malicious, it can lead to unfavorable hiring decisions, especially for traditionally under-represented groups, so hiring teams should learn to recognize and ensure that hiring processes incorporate strategies to mitigate against discrimination, even when unintentional. Unconscious bias can negatively impact workplaces by thwarting efforts to recruit and retain diverse employees. It can also hamper career advancement opportunities, contribute to salary inequities, and prevent equal access to opportunity for women and people of color.

It’s important to note that diversity has been proven to improve organizations’ performance, culture, creativity, relationships, and bottom-line business results. Creating a diverse team is not only the right thing to do, research shows it leads to improvements across every performance measure.

To reduce (or eliminate) unconscious bias and increase diversity:

  • Acknowledge that you’re biased. We all have preconceived, subconscious notions in our heads and therefore all have biases, including those of us who work in hiring. It doesn’t make you a bad person and recognizing this enables you to be aware when issues arise and facilitates mindful recruitment.
  • Educate your recruiters. Teach your hiring team about unconscious bias-what it is and how to avoid it. Hold thoughtful, honest conversations about bias and how it can threaten your nonprofit’s attempts to build diversity. Use appropriate tools (e.g., articles, trainings, and speakers) to describe how unconscious bias can damage efforts to create diverse, inclusive workforces.
  • Expand your network. Go beyond your “usual” recruiting methods to cast a wider net for candidates. For instance, many nonprofits rely on employee referrals to recruit new candidates, but employees tend to refer people that are similar to themselves in terms of race, education, and background. This contributes to a homogenous workforce. Ensure that your recruiters are proactively reaching out to a wide range of organizations and sources to expand candidate pipelines.
  • Use standardized hiring processes. Develop a list of the core competencies most critical to your new hire before beginning a search, then compare all applicants to that list. This will help you to crystallize the qualities that ideal candidates should offer, and ensure you’re assessing prospects more consistently. Ask each candidate the same interview questions to ensure that your assessments are impartial and unbiased. Focus the interview questions on factors that directly impact job performance. Have the same people interview all candidates so prospects can be consistently and fairly assessed. Create and use an “interview scorecard” and grade each candidate’s responses to each question, then compare candidates’ scores at the end of the interview process.
  • Consider trying “blind” techniques. Redacted resumes and CVs help shine a light on how bias impacts our decisions, and, when implemented well, can even reduce bias in the hiring process. When certain details (e.g., name, hometown, school) are excluded, reviewers may be more able to objectively assess candidates, thus making more fair and equitable decisions about candidates. Recruiting teams can manually blind materials or leverage software or companies that do the work of blinding applications or screening resumes for you.
  • Provide a standardized test. Ensure that hiring processes have some element of assignment that allows decision-makers to assess work product rather than relying solely on a candidate’s background or interviewing skills. Create some form of assignment that provides a window into how well a candidate might do in the actual work of the job. Give every candidate the same test and evaluate them all on the same criteria. Even better: make it a “blind” test with key identifying information removed so candidates can be judged solely on their answers and not on their gender, age, or other factors.
  • Avoid the “halo and horn effect.” Don’t focus on one particular trait (e.g., he went to a prestigious university). If your hiring manager decides she “prefers” a candidate because he went to a particular school, it can create a “halo effect” where that one detail about a candidate can impact everyone’s opinion of them. Just because he got his degree from an Ivy League school doesn’t mean he’s necessarily the right fit for the job. Conversely, one negative association can create a “horn effect” that results in an overwhelmingly negative perception of someone because of a single trait or factor. Interview scorecards, or even scoring resumes consistently, can help ensure you consider a wide range of useful indicators when making your decision.
  • Elevate your job descriptions. Job descriptions can promote hiring bias by sending subtle messages about who should and should not apply for a certain role. To combat this, avoid using adjectives closely associated with a particular gender (e.g., aggressive, competitive, nurturing, or dependable). Using neutral language will help attract a more diverse candidate pool; also consider following the lead of the employers moving to gender neutral pronouns (they rather than he/she). Software can help scan position descriptions for bias language and offer alternatives.
  • Create a diversity statement. Develop an explicit philosophy regarding how your nonprofit views diversity and your commitments in the space. Be transparent about this and make it visible to all by posting it on your website.
  • Set diversity recruiting goals. As an organization, set diversity goals and routinely measure progress against these benchmarks. Perhaps the goal is to interview a minimum of five people from underrepresented groups for every open position or to increase the number of women or people of color on your board. If you’re falling short of these goals, reassess how you’re recruiting and determine how to attract a more diverse pool of candidates.
  • Look beyond commonalities. We often look for common ground when meeting someone new-did we attend the same school, do we support the same political candidates, are we around the same age, etc. Often, during the recruiting and hiring process, we’re more inclined to favor candidates “like us,” with shared interests, backgrounds, or beliefs, which gives them an unfair advantage over other prospective hires without these commonalities. We may not feel a connection to someone who has a very different background, and thus see them less favorably as a candidate.

The best way to combat unconscious bias is to first acknowledge we all have biases and assess how it may be impacting your recruiting processes. Then adopt hiring practices that promote equity, consistency, and fairness. When you build on a base of awareness and acknowledgement that we all have subconscious biases, these relatively small changes can help set your nonprofit on the path toward meaningful advances in creating a more inclusive, diverse environment.