4 ways recruiters can avoid implicit bias

Jan 02, 2019 - Cat DiStasio

Workplace inequalities and the problems associated with stereotyping in recruiting have been well documented. Implicit bias is arguably the worst type of stereotyping because, by nature of its definition, it happens under the radar of awareness. That’s why it’s also sometimes described as unconscious bias. And while some may cling to that old adage that ‘what we don’t know can’t hurt us,’ it’s simply not true when it comes to bias in recruiting.

Implicit bias refers to stereotypes or feelings that affect our actions and decisions in an unconscious manner, according to the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, which publishes an annual Implicit Bias Review. These biases can sneak into important business decisions, and even the perception of a discriminatory bias in the workplace can have a negative effect on employee engagement.

Research shows 44 percent of job seekers feel they experienced discrimination in the hiring process, and that figure alone should be enough to motivate talent acquisition leaders to create a proactive strategy for reducing the effects of implicit bias. Fortunately, there are a number of smart techniques for avoiding implicit bias and reducing its impact on your recruiting process.

Tip #1: Raise awareness

In cliche fashion, when it comes to biases, the first step is admitting you have a problem. But measuring implicit bias has proven to be tricky business. After Harvard’s Project Implicit released a public Implicit Association Test (IAT), designed to allow anyone to test their implicit bias. The survey link has traveled across social media like wildfire more than once. But it’s come to light that the results of the survey aren’t always accurate and don’t necessarily predict discriminatory behavior. While research has documented time and again the presence of bias in recruiting, business leaders struggle to accurately measure the effects of bias on the broader workforce.

When a tool designed specifically to root out implicit bias doesn’t work consistently, it strongly illustrates how difficult a task this really is. It also suggests that humans should continue working to identify bias and learn how to avoid letting it affect their business decisions. All isn’t lost when it comes to technology, though. There are ways tech tools like a recruiting chatbot can reduce implicit bias - and we’ll get to that a bit later.

But for now, we know artificial intelligence will become more sophisticated in the future, but also that it will always reflect the values and biases of its creators. The buck should stop with a considerate, well-trained human recruiting team. This means recruiters still need to take proactive steps to reduce the impact of implicit bias. In some organizations, this means running blind resume drills, where job seekers’ names are covered or concealed from recruiters in some way. Companies successfully reducing bias also spend time looking for other points in the recruiting process where generalized stereotypes might be creating implicit bias, particularly as it relates to your organization’s diversity goals, or gender equality initiatives.

Tip #2: Simplify and standardize processes

In addition to becoming more aware of the presence of implicit bias, talent acquisition teams that implement simple, standardized processes do a better job of managing bias. Standard processes help avoid a recruiting process that is accidentally biased.

AI-powered recruiting tools can support this by implementing standardized processes that offer each applicant the same candidate experience. Because a chatbot doesn’t get bored or tired, we can count on it for delivering consistent, uniform service to each candidate who interacts with it. Already, 38 percent of talent acquisition professionals are using AI tools to eliminate bias. At the same time, the industry is testing the limits of how much AI recruiting chatbots can do to hedge out bias. Amazon recently shuttered the development of an AI screening tool, after it was discovered to have a strong bias against women. Rather than try to tweak or patch the recruiting engine, Amazon wisely decided to abandon the project and look for other solutions. While some AI tools can make recruiting a much easier, more equitable process, it’s still up to the humans to keep everything in balance.

Tip #3: Use structured conversations/interviews

As with unstructured processes, Harvard Business Review research shows unstructured interviews create more biased results. The solution is consistency. This means everything from asking every applicant the same questions, in the same words, in the same order, so that evaluating their responses becomes about apples vs apples, not apples vs potatoes.

Many enterprise employers are turning to technology solutions to satisfy this need, and job seekers seem comfortable with this. Of the candidates who perceived bias in hiring, 56 percent think recruiting chatbots can be less biased than human recruiters. And that may be true. A recruiting chatbot can do what a human recruiter can’t: ask the same questions, using the same words, in the same order, for thousands of candidates without variation or complaints.

Although developers are still discovering challenges to overcome, there may be a time where robots perform all initial interviews with candidates, and assess candidates on much more than their resumes or list of skills. There are robots in line for that job, as well. Some companies are working on AI-based tools that use algorithms to evaluate digital interviews with candidates, and make assessments about their tone of voice, word clusters, and micro facial expressions. With machines making decisions based on the way a candidate speaks, will tools like this help eliminate bias, or will they introduce new challenges for recruiting teams? Time, and the strategic decisions of talent acquisition leaders, will tell.

Tip #4: Set diversity goals

If your company has a bias problem, you may have a diversity problem as well. And given the overwhelming research that shows the benefits of making diversity a priority within your organization, talent acquisition leaders can’t afford to overlook the ways implicit bias could be getting in the way of your diversity goals.

McKinsey research showed companies with the most ethnically diverse executive teams are 33 percent more profitable. And a Catalyst study revealed that organizations with the most women at the director level have a 26 percent higher return on invested capital than those with the least number of women. Together, figures like these illustrate the business case for prioritizing diversity and inclusion. With clearly outlined goals and a conscious strategy for avoiding implicit bias, companies can finally work to overcome decades of inequalities.

To support specific diversity goals, your recruiting team may need to employ unique sourcing strategies and innovate new ways to find and reel in hard-to-find candidates. Recruiting experts suggest creating smarter search strings, using A/B testing on recruiting messaging, and other techniques that help improve your reach when it comes to diverse candidates, especially when geography is a factor.

Eliminate bias?

While the ultimate goal of recruiting may be to eradicate bias entirely from the process at every stage, that notion seems impractical and unlikely. After all, human beings are by nature full of judgment and beliefs. By implementing strategies to help reduce the negative impact of implicit bias in recruiting, though, you can protect your organization from falling into an age-old trap. Instead, by rooting out bias and focusing on diversity and inclusion goals, you can build teams that will lead your business to new wins.

Looking to increase the diversity in your workplace? Check out our guide "How to increase diversity in the workplace." Or check out our Recruiting Chatbot Revolution eBook below:

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