Unconscious bias and recruitment decisions

Beth Alberga

May 12 2021
Unconscious biases are the views and opinions we’re seemingly unaware of, even though they can affect our everyday behaviour and decision-making. Our background, culture, context, and personal experiences influence our unconscious biases. When equated to the workplace, they can impact decisions such as recruitment, disciplinary action, and appraisals.

Being such a fundamental and relatively unknown factor, some organisations have offered unconscious bias training to increase their awareness. However, this lost popularity more recently, particularly with the civil service discontinuing the training and urging other public-sector organisations to do the same since it had little impact on behaviours or long-term attitudes.

It begs the question, what steps can we take to remove unconscious bias in recruitment?

After all, organisations understand the importance of finding the right employee – the person/organisation fit – but don’t we make assumptions about who will be a good fit? Research undertaken by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) provides some valuable recommendations, which are considered below.

Recruiters can be prone to ‘affinity bias’, where they like candidates who are similar to themselves or someone they know and, equally, ‘status quo bias’, which may cause employers to feel more comfortable looking for candidates who are similar to those they’ve hired before. On this basis, it’s crucial to review job descriptions and person specifications before recruiting to make sure they include characteristics that the organisation needs or needs in the future (for example, someone might meet all the requirements needed to perform the job well but may not fit with some aspects of the existing culture).

The power of words

You should also consider the wording used in job adverts. Studies conducted by CIPD show that the language used can affect who will apply. When a job advert included stereotypically masculine words, women were less attracted to these jobs than when the same advert was constructed to have stereotypically feminine words.

For example, masculine sentences like ‘We will challenge our employees to be proud of their chosen career’ and ‘You’ll develop leadership skills and learn business principles’ are comparative to the feminine worded version of the same job advert which would include sentences such as ‘We nurture and support our employees, expecting that they will become committed to their chosen career’ and ‘You will develop interpersonal skills and understanding of business.’

Shortlisting candidates

Education recruitment already works with best practice in mind, which should help reduce bias, mainly through shortlisting application forms as a group rather than assessing them each in isolation. This enables side-by-side comparisons, which can decrease bias and encourage those shortlisted to be assessed as individuals based on their experience and potential. Another step to reduce the potential for unconscious bias could be removing the personal data within the CV format and even redacting the surname/family name from the application form before the selection panel shortlists.

Using a grid to confirm the reason for the shortlisting decisions can be a beneficial aid, which is why most schools already have an existing form to refer to.

Are you ready to radicalise interviewing?

In terms of interviewing, there’s also a danger of deciding earlier on and the possibility of interview fatigue (remembering those interviewed earlier in the process more favourably). To avoid these types of bias, it can be helpful to reframe the job interview as a data-gathering exercise rather than a decision-making session; that way, a decision can be made after all interviews have taken place and are based upon the information gathered. Remember to ensure you have enough time allocated for each interview; this might mean spreading them over more than one day if necessary.

Many schools use a scoring form to keep track of responses and how the interview is going. Of course, structured interviews and interview panels also assist with challenging bias and making decisions based on the information gathered, which are already used in the education sector.

You could even consider an additional, more radical, step in the interviewing process. Following Google’s footsteps, you could put measures in place to prevent managers from interviewing candidates for their own teams and/or departments to encourage a more objective selection and remove any potential bias. Otherwise, try to involve someone in recruitment decisions that hasn’t been part of the process to review the information and reason for the appointment decision.


If you’re looking for support with strategic recruitment decisions, correctly shortlisting, conducting relevant searches, and complying with safer recruitment and DBS requirements, we have model policies, procedures and letters for use, along with relevant training, please talk to us.

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