What Is Hiring Bias & How To Overcome It

What is bias?

Bias is natural and can easily seep into everyday life but hiring is one place where it can do severe damage. Bias is everywhere. Once you delve below the surface, you start to realise that a considerable amount of human action is due to various types of bias. Bias is hardwired into humanity; we evolved with it.

The Oxford dictionary defines bias as:

"Inclination or prejudice for or against one person or group, especially in a way considered to be unfair”

Conscious bias exists, and is usually called 'prejudice'; this is the apparent bias which makes it the easiest to deal with effectively. Additionally to that, it’s rare to find a company that doesn’t have an active procedure in place to deal with prejudice.

Bias becomes a serious issue when it’s unconscious. Unfortunately, it’s natural. Psychologists explain that our unconscious biases are merely our ‘people preferences’ and we naturally favour those who look like us, sound like us and are interested in the same things.

We make snap judgements constantly, and these are often based on a phenomenon called heuristics, which is when we use an overly small piece of information to make a decision.

Try this example out:

If together pen + pen lid cost £1.10 and a pen costs £1 more than a pen lid; how much does a pen cost?

This example doesn’t work as well by text, but, when people listen to this example, 90% get the wrong answer. It’s because we naturally take the easiest option and in this case, the easy choice is to see the £1.10 and price the pen lid at 10p, but then if you add this up it obviously doesn’t work, since the pen lid can only cost 5p.

Whilst limited, that is a great example of how the vast majority of people can get a seemingly decision wrong, based purely off of heuristics.

Unconscious bias in the hiring process can seriously affect a companies ability to build their best team, hire the right people or reach its potential. We know that diversity makes companies better. Diversity doesn’t necessarily mean differing demographics (although this is significant); diversity is just as much about hiring people with differing mindsets, experience and approaches. Failure to diversify your attitudes can be severely damaging.


So how can we overcome bias?

Unconscious bias can be incredibly pernicious to hiring as it’s very hard to spot at the moment of hiring and only becomes obvious when looking at a larger data set of hiring. Take the famous case from UC Berkley in 1973, where the data seemed to show that women were less likely to be accepted. However due to a statistical phenomena called the Simpsons paradox, this proved to be a false positive and that in fact it were the male applicants suffering from the bias.

How do we address a problem when it is so hard to uncover? The simplest and best solution is to assume that it always happens. If we assume that in every hiring process there is going to be unconscious bias, then it becomes easier to eliminate it. Using methods, techniques and technology across the recruitment entry process is the best way to start eliminating bias.

Too many people are afraid of uncovering something horrendous - no one wants to be guilty of hiring bias, but without taking an objective view at one's hiring, the most damaging biases may never be discovered.


About the Author: Xavier Parkhouse-Parker is PLATO Intelligence's CEO. Xavier loves applying Philosophy and History to business scenarios. He enjoys using AI to solve problems in the business and HR world and helping HR teams adopt new technologies.

Contact on Twitter or Linkedin for more