Unconscious bias occurs when stereotypes, prejudices and preconceived notions lead people to favor or oppose one person (or group of people) over another, often in ways that are unfair. Unconscious bias is more prevalent than conscious bias and can conflict with a person’s conscious beliefs and values.

It unfairly excludes qualified candidates from positions they’re capable of fulfilling. It prevents organizations from finding the best candidates for the job and hinders diversity, performance and employee retention. Unconscious biases can shape a company’s culture and norms, carrying negative effects into the employee experience.

Examples of unconscious bias in the workplace

A Harvard Business Review article detailed research by Doris Weichselbaumer, a professor at Johannes Kepler University Linz. Weichselbaumer created job applications for three fictitious female candidates, each of whom had identical qualifications. She submitted 1,500 applications to job listings in Germany.

The candidates were presented as:

  • Sandra Bauer (German name)
  • Meryem Öztürk (Turkish name — no headscarf)
  • Meryem Öztürk (Turkish name — wearing a headscarf)

Weichselbaumer found that Meryem Öztürk (without a headscarf) had to send 40% more applications (vs. Sandra Bauer) to receive a callback, while Meryem Öztürk (with a headscarf) had to send 450% more applications for a callback.

A 2012 research study from Yale University demonstrated a science faculty’s unconscious gender bias towards male students. According to the research paper’s Abstract, “Faculty participants rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant. These participants also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant.”

The gender of faculty members made no difference, as male and female faculty exhibited bias against female students in equal amounts.

Another research study detailed unconscious bias that favors taller men. A paper titled “Height, Human Capital, And Earnings: The Contributions of Cognitive and Noncognitive Ability” found that the average male CEO is three inches taller than the average man. In addition, tall employees command a 9-15% higher salary.

Understanding the dangers of pitfalls of unconscious bias in the hiring process, let’s consider how to avoid it.

Acknowledge that bias exists

Stereotypes and bias are a part of the human condition: we all have a set of unconscious and conscious biases. The first step in addressing a problem is acknowledging that you have one. Understand what biases might exist in the hiring process and lead candid conversations within the organization about how to address them.

Provide training to all levels of the organization, from senior leaders to managers to individual contributors. Everyone, whether directly involved in the hiring process or not, can benefit from unconscious bias training.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, offers a six-course online training program designed to increase awareness of implicit bias (also known as unconscious bias). The course provides a definition of implicit bias, then covers topics of its impact and how to manage implicit bias in hiring. 

In addition, there are numerous online training courses on unconscious bias that you can purchase for employees to access.

Assess your organizational biases

Now that you’ve identified unconscious biases and deployed training across the organization, take the next step with assessment tests. An assessment test can determine which of an employee’s perceptions are most likely to be lead to unconscious biases. With those insights, you can work with that employee on a one-on-one basis to minimize the potential for bias.

Project Implicit at Harvard University provides a set of Implicit Association Tests (IAT) that measures attitudes and beliefs that people may be unwilling or unable to report. The tests can be useful in identifying unconscious biases.

For example, the Skin-tone IAT “requires the ability to recognize light and dark-skinned faces and often reveals an automatic preference for light-skin relative to dark-skin.” All of the IAT’s are available on the Project Implicit website.

Implement blind hiring

Blind hiring is a process that aims to conceal candidate attributes that can be associated with unconscious bias (e.g., name, race, gender, age). These attributes are hidden from the hiring manager, as well as other team members involved in candidate selection and interviewing. In some scenarios, managers implementing blind hiring may make a job offer to candidates without having met or spoken to them.

To implement blind hiring, HR leaders need to identify the attributes that should be hidden. Examples of attributes that don’t predict a candidate’s ability to perform the job include name, race and gender. Blind hiring also places an emphasis on ability tests over interviews. For example, candidates for a software development position may be evaluated primarily on their effectiveness at completing an assigned coding exercise.

Optimize the interviewing process

By their nature, unstructured interviews can quickly lead to unconscious bias. To minimize unconscious bias, ask hiring teams to implement structured interviews in which each candidate is asked the same set of questions. 

During the interview, the interviewer should score each question after the answer is provided. This captures accurate feedback at the most opportune time. If interviewees wait until the conclusion, they may forget certain details or be influenced (e.g., biased) by a particularly good or bad answer that ensued. 

When meeting to debrief about candidates, the group should make evaluations horizontally — that is, on a question-by-question basis, rather than judging the candidates as a whole. This ensures a dialog about substance (e.g., the quality of the candidates’ answers) rather than perceptions.

Set diversity goals

Setting diversity goals give the organization a shared mission to meet. Just as important, it requires you to regularly measure diversity and determine whether you’re behind, on track or ahead of the curve. 

There’s a flip side to diversity when it comes to groups that are traditionally advantaged: they may feel that diversity in hiring puts them at a disadvantage for certain positions or promotions. So make sure your diversity efforts “come from the top,” with strong executive buy-in. If your CEO buys in to the cause, it’s easier to convince employees that it’s the right approach to take.