HR Jetpack

Unconscious Bias

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Unconscious Bias

Lesson Content

In a previous lesson I defined unconscious bias and briefly discussed its potential impact on business operations. More research is showing how our hidden biases affect the workplace and the overall employment cycle. For instance, a popular study from the Clayman Institute of Gender Studies at Stanford found that the number of female orchestra musicians went up from 5% to 25% over the past 40 years. Since the 70s, judges began auditioning all musicians behind a screen so they could not be influenced by their gender.

Another one from Yale University found science researchers rated a male job candidate as more qualified and willing to pay him a higher starting salary than the equally qualified female job candidate.

And the Chicago Resume Study showed those resumes with a white sounding name like “Brendan” or “Emily” elicited 50 percent more callbacks than those with African American sounding names like “Lakisha” and “Jamal”.

Unfortunately, unconscious bias can affect your recruiting process in a number of ways. Here are a few examples of a bias and how it plays out in the recruitment phase:

Example number 1, the Contrast Effect. This bias distorts our perception of a person, situation or object. In HR we deal with people. We may see a person having similar characteristics to someone else. As a result, we may judge and perceive that person in a more positive or negative way. In recruiting, an interviewer may compare the current person that they are meeting with to a previous candidate. If he or she had a good meeting, the current candidate may look bad or vice versa. This can also occur with resumes. As we’re sifting through hundreds of documents, we may judge whether the resume in front of us looks as good as the one before it.

Example number 2, the Halo Effect. Our overall impression of someone influences how we perceive the person’s others traits. So if we see one great thing about him or her, the halo shines above their head and we think everything must be great about that person. This plays out in recruiting when we see a highly esteemed college listed on a candidate’s resume with a high grade point average. We’ll tend to view the remainder of the resume in the glow of such an accomplishment.

Example number 3, in my experience is the most common. The Similarity or Affinity Bias. The name is just as it sounds. We have a natural tendency to surround ourselves with people like us. Being with others we can relate to is comfortable, and who wants to be uncomfortable? As a result, in recruiting, we may disqualify people during the interview process who are different from us. If you’re hiring managers are predominantly white, male, they may be advocating for candidates who are also white and male.

There is no simple approach to changing our unconscious bias since we are unaware of such influences! In the next section, I’ll review several best practices to combat these issues.

Christina Danforth


Christina Danforth

Christina A. Danforth, SHRM-SCP & SPHR, launched HR Jetpack in 2016 to support the development and professional growth of her fellow HR colleagues. She started her HR career in 2002....

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