How to tackle unconscious bias in recruitment

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How to tackle unconscious bias in recruitment

By Clare Edwards FIML


When it comes to making decisions about people, we all like to think that we’re objective, fair and impartial. The reality though is very different because, if we have a brain, we are biased.

Unconscious bias (UB), also known as implicit bias, happens automatically, is outside of our control and is triggered by our brain making quick assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, culture and personal experiences. The clue is in the word ‘unconscious’. When we are being biased, we aren’t aware of it as the brain can’t reflect at the same time as it’s making a mental shortcut decision.

UB impacts every area of decision-making in organisations including who gets hired, fired, promoted and demoted. It impacts leadership and team effectiveness, the treatment of stakeholders and ultimately, culture.

One of the most common unconscious biases in recruitment is affinity or similarity bias.  This leads us to gravitate towards people who are like ourselves in appearance, beliefs, and background.  We have an unconscious belief – “I prefer people like me over those who are different”.  

When we were roaming the African savannah plains, out looking for lunch (or becoming lunch if we weren’t vigilant), different equalled dangerous, so we are programmed to consider people who are different to us as ‘foe’ before friend.

Unconsciously, when we first meet someone who appears different, (even for microseconds), our brain’s master error detector fires off subtle signals checking for safety, while consciously we are openly welcoming, curious and respectful.

Because most of our biases are unconscious, putting systems and processes in place can help to mitigate them.  Awareness training can also work, but it is most effective when supported by a conscious effort to have a culture of diversity and inclusion where bias is challenged.

Here are four practical strategies for mitigating unconscious bias:


1. Challenge existing processes


When crafting job advertisements, apps like Textio can help managers avoid gender-biased language and ensure the vocabulary they use is inclusive, gender-neutral and not influencing candidates subjectively.

Software company Atlassian put Textio’s software to the test by reworking the way in which it worded its job advertisements. In just one year, the company increased the number of women being hired for technical positions by 80 per cent!


2. Minimise our ability to revert to affinity bias

In first-round selections, consider removing a candidate’s name, tertiary education experience and all other factors that don’t directly relate to the attributes you are seeking in a successful applicant.

In auditions for symphony orchestras, screens were put in place between the musicians and the interviewing panel (and female candidates were asked to remove noisy heels). This increased the likelihood that a female musician would advance to the next round by 11 percentage points. During the final round, ‘blind’ auditions increased the likelihood of female musicians being selected by 30%.


3. Re-think decision making

When we make a conscious effort to slow down and reflect on the drivers behind our decisions, we can uncover hidden biases. This is even more effective when executed in a group environment because we don’t challenge our own biases because we’re not aware of them!

Actively welcome differing perspectives in recruitment decisions; the people don’t have to be from the same department to help shine a light you might not see.

Being open to having our decisions respectfully challenged requires a culture of psychological safety.  This supports us in becoming more open-minded, less judgemental and more flexible to changing our decisions based on the feedback we get.


4. Proactively drive inclusion

Having a diverse workforce brings benefits – and investing in, and focusing on, inclusion brings even greater success. It makes sense to want your employee base to culturally, racially and ethnically reflect that of your customers/ stakeholders and to have these people feel fully included.


  • Encourage people to interact more with those traditionally outside of their ‘in-group’ to expand their awareness and appreciation of difference
  • Team-based psychometric profiling tools such as Team Management Systems (TMS) and DiSC are extremely helpful. These provide an objective insight into preferences of self and others, our key differences and how we can harness differing strengths to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.


Recruiting people is the most important and potentially costly decision that organisations will make. It makes sense therefore to invest energy, focus and time in ensuring that the people we hire feel valued and included members of our community from the outset and for the duration of their career with us.


Clare Edwards is the Principal of BrainSmart Consulting. She is also a speaker, facilitator and author. She studied the Neuroscience of Leadership – how knowledge of our brains can help us to be more emotionally intelligent and effective leaders and managers. Clare now helps people effectively manage and lead themselves and others in complex and uncertain business environments. 

Doing more to beat unconscious bias
Keep an eye out for the next edition of IML ANZ’s quarterly print magazine, Leadership Matters, where Clare Edwards joins a panel of experts to delve deeper into unconscious bias and how to overcome it.

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