Is Unconscious Bias In Recruiting Impacting Your Hiring Process?

| Ameya Deshmukh
Bias & Diversity
unconscious bias still effects diversity

Many recruiting organizations have implemented an initiative, program, or policy surrounding diversity and inclusion practices, with the goals of reducing the impact of unconscious bias to bring equality in opportunity to their hiring process. It’s great to see high level buy in and organizational support for creating a more equitable world of work for all. However, I’ve looked through a fair amount of research and I’m concerned that diversity and inclusion policies, on their own, are not enough to create equitable access to job opportunities. 

True change will take time and hard work, and as leaders in recruiting, we need to first understand how unconscious bias in hiring still undermines our diversity and inclusion efforts. Of course, one of the biggest hurdles in defeating this unconscious bias is the fact that it’s, well, unconscious! These decision-making shortcuts were hardwired into our brains throughout human evolution. Unconscious bias thrives under the conditions of uncertainty, and flourishes on the time and cognitive restraints that recruiters are subject to at work every day. Let’s take a deeper look at this connection. 

The pitfalls of high volume tasks 

Many of these unconscious bias practices fall under the context of the high volume tasks that are a natural part of the recruitment process. It’s easy for recruiters to become overwhelmed with inbound applicants: we’re only human, and there are limits to how many applications recruiters can review, candidate conversations recruiters can have, interviews recruiters can schedule, and so on. 

For example, when recruiters are overwhelmed, less time is spent on pre-screening each applicant. That pressure is compounded even further depending on the state of the economy. Through an eye-tracking study of recruiters in high volume applicant scenarios, Ladders found that during the 2012 recession, recruiters spent an average of just 6 seconds per resume. And the results weren’t much more promising even during record-low unemployment numbers in 2018: recruiters were still only spending 7.4 seconds on average per resume. This is hardly enough time to effectively match candidate skills to position needs. 

With more candidates available during a recession, the more resumes a recruiter goes through, the more likely they are to find the perfect candidate, right? Not quite. During the last recession, managers noted that positions that used to take two months to fill, ended up taking 8 months to fill. That’s a lot of time for those unconscious biases to take hold and lay roots in the recruitment process, especially taking into consideration those constraints on recruiter time and cognition. 


Unconscious Bias and resume screening

Amos Tversky and Daniel Khanaman’s Nobel Prize-winning research on how people manage risk and uncertainty found that when constraints of limited time and cognitive capacity are placed on decision making, humans rely on mental shortcuts of reasoning called heuristics and biases. The greater the constraint on time and cognition, the greater the likelihood that decision-makers will rely on their unconscious system of irrational cognitive biases to make decisions.

Consistent with Tversky and Khanaman’s research, Ladders also found that because recruiters have so little time to look at resumes, they were only scanning the name, job titles, and employment dates listed

Here’s why it’s problematic to only review name, job title, and employment history:

A 2-year joint study completed by University of Toronto and Stanford University helps explain this unconscious bias further, in part by looking at the role of employers in shaping hiring outcomes. Researchers applied to 1,600 entry-level jobs across 16 U.S. metro areas with three versions of the same set of resumes: 

  • Version A used whitened resumes (all ethnic identifiers replaced with caucasian names);
  • Version B used Asian ethnic identifiers; 
  • Version C used African American identifiers. 

Researchers created email accounts and phone numbers for each applicant to gauge activity like interview offers and other feedback from prospective employers. Here’s what happened:  

  • Version A resumes received 182% more interview offers than Version B resumes with Asian identifiers
  • Version A resumes received 250% more interview offers than Version C resumes with African American identifiers

The background of the candidate and qualification for the role in every version of the resume was exactly the same. 

Despite the fact that skills and qualification, some of the most important candidate considerations for a position, were exactly the same, the amount of interview offers differed greatly between resume versions. 

So if recruiters, crunched for time, are only looking at names, job titles, and employment dates listed, there is strong support showing how greatly unconscious bias impacts minority applicants right at resume screening. While a resume review doesn’t necessarily guarantee a job offer, it has the power to open doors to integral steps toward that job offer, and minorities are at a greater disadvantage from the start. 

I’m seeing the connection between recruiting practices and unconscious bias…but what about our conscious efforts toward diversity & inclusion? 

Great question. The research by University of Toronto and Stanford University took these conscious efforts of organizations into account as well. 

In another part of the study, researchers found entry-level job opportunities at companies with diversity and inclusion initiatives that clearly stated they were an equal opportunity employer, looking for phrases like “minorities encouraged to apply,” among additional indicators that a company was pro-diversity. They then had a group of minority participants write a set of resumes for job postings that included “diversity support indicators,” and then had that same group of minority participants compose a set of resumes for other jobs without those pro-diversity indicators. Here’s a quick look at their findings:

  • A statistically significant amount of the minority participants “whitened” their resumes for job postings without pro-diversity indicators. 
  • Minority participants were “more likely to submit racially transparent resumes to ostensibly pro-diversity employers.” 
  • “Employers that adopt pro-diversity statements are, in fact, just as likely to engage in discrimination against unwhitened resumes as employers that do not display such statements.”

The paradox of diversity & inclusion and racial transparency

Did you catch the paradox? Even companies who had a D&I policy in place and made the conscious decisions to include pro-diversity statements have pre-screening recruitment processes that are affected by unconscious bias. Existing solutions are not working to reduce time and cognitive capacity constraints on recruiters, and the effects of time and cognitive constraints are major contributors to unconscious bias in recruiting. 

Awareness of bias is only the first step. The second is to create a plan of action to address them. As you think through your hiring processes and look to bring on new technology, keep bias and the areas it is likely to influence in mind. While recruiting and hiring is just one component of the labor market, the negative impact of unconscious bias undermines any organizational efforts to create a more equitable world of work.

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