Confused by unconscious bias in recruitment

Posted by | July 14, 2020 | Employers, Recruiting tips

Confused by unconscious bias in recruitment

By Carolyn Brown

“Gosh, darn it, Carolyn, when did it become so darn difficult to employ someone without being labelled by the PC brigade as sexist? I run tours for fishermen; therefore, it makes perfect sense for my guides to be men. I have also been in the game for over 20 years and have always employed men, business is good, and feedback from clients is positive. Till last week, when I was told my website had been highlighted in some woman’s blog as an example of a sexist employer. I think I have been unfairly labelled. I love women, some of my best friends are women, but in my experience, they don’t like fishing, so why should I pander to these militant feminists who want everyone to do what they say? My lawyer says I can’t sue her cause she has a point. What can I do to get her off my back while I find a new lawyer?

Signed, Confused of Taupo”


Dear Confused,

First of all, congratulations for surviving so long in a business that has completely ignored 50% of its potential market. Whilst I am not a medical practitioner, it is apparent that you are suffering from a severe case of unconscious bias. I suspect that you are entirely unaware that the basis on which you have employed people in the past is now considered a big no-no. Unconscious bias is when your brain makes a judgement about someone or something based on assumptions it has already figured out makes you feel good. These judgements are what you might call instinctive or a gut feeling. But in reality, they are based on several biases that have been well researched and documented by psychologists. These biases include:

  • Affinity bias– you are more likely to be drawn to people who are like you or someone else that you like. What is familiar is considered by the brain to be safe and relatable.
  • Attribution bias– you are more likely to dismiss someone who has attributes that your brain considers to be hallmarks of failure or vice versa does not have the qualities that you associate with success.
  • Beauty bias– you associate how someone looks with their personality or ability. E.g. if someone is well-groomed they must be well organised, or if they wear glasses, they must be smart. This type of bias can also work against a ‘beautiful’ candidate as people think someone can’t possibly be “pretty and smart”.
  • Confirmation bias– is when you look for information which fits with a judgement call or opinion you already have about the person. E.g. you have decided that they are a messy person because you noticed a stain on their shirt; so you look for other information in their CV that would confirm this assumption and ignore all the evidence that may suggest otherwise.
  • Conformity bias– is when you adapt your views to those of others because you don’t want to stand out or want to fit in.
  • Contrast bias– while comparing CV’s against each other might not sound bias, it is if you forget you are supposed to be matching people to the role description and not against each other.
  • Gender bias– preferring one gender over another based on traditional gender roles and stereotypes.
  • Halo effect– thinking someone is better than they are because of one great personality trait. You ignore all the not-so-great qualities because of this ‘halo’. Kind of like when you first fall in love with someone.
  • Horns effect– thinking someone is worse than they are because of one annoying personality trait. You ignore all the great qualities about them because of a fixation over a perceived flaw. Kind of like when you fall out of love with someone and no longer want to be with them.

The good news, dear confused, is that having an unconscious bias is not a terminal condition and there are several things you can do to stop an attack from happening every time you need to hire someone.

  1. First and foremost, recognise that everyone is biased in some way (even in the Do Good sector). Becoming conscious of the unconscious and your trigger points is an excellent first step. There is no point in beating yourself up for something you didn’t know you were doing. But now you do know; you have the opportunity to make amends, do better and lose that sexist tag for good.  Everyone is capable of change; it is called growth.
  2. Arrange for someone else to take part in the application process, preferably someone trained in human resources and different from you. You can do this during any stage of the hiring process, but preferably it will be at the beginning, so all applicants get a fair hearing.
  3. Take time to make a decision. This way, you will avoid making snap judgements, or hiring in a hurry rather than hiring on merit.
  4. Participate in a workplace diversity course, multicultural course, or any course that allows you to explore the positive contributions of people who are not like you.
  5. Check that the position description that you measure candidates against isn’t biased towards a particular “type” of applicant before you even start accepting applications. Be open-minded and remember to rate candidates on their own merits, not how they stack up against others.

So there you go dearest confused, now you have a diagnosis, a list of symptoms and prescribed remedies that will help you recover from your bout of unconscious bias.

Long may you enjoy the many benefits of having a diverse workforce.

Has unconscious bias in the past afflicted you? If so, we welcome in the comments section any advice you also have for dear confused about how to overcome unconscious bias in the recruitment process.

P.S. You may not have noticed but at no stage did I mention confused’s gender. If you automatically thought they were male, then am sorry, but you have just experienced a case of unconscious bias. Not only men have preferred a male-only workforce in the past.



About Carolyn Brown

Carolyn enjoys writing stuff that engages readers, makes them feel like they are in a conversation with the screen, and doesn’t require a dictionary on standby to make sense of what she has written.

When she is not creating content, she likes to keep busy volunteering for various not for profits; throwing sticks to her step-dog as they walk along North Beach in Christchurch, and enjoying the company of friends. If you would like to know more, head on over to her website or email her at [email protected]

Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.