If something you couldn’t see was keeping your business from growing, wouldn’t you want to do something about it? What if it meant admitting something about yourself you wouldn’t be so proud of, such as the idea that when it comes to hiring, you tend for no reason at all to dismiss some people out of hand while favoring others?

Bias in hiring happens all the time. Most hiring managers don’t even know they’re doing it, and few have safeguards in place to control for it.

It’s nothing you should be embarrassed about, but human nature, studies say. Overt discriminatory policies may be a thing of the past, yet researchers have found evidence that biased hiring decisions occur regardless of whether managers believe they’ve engaged in the practice. Even conscious efforts to avoid it along with “anti-bias” training have proved less effective than hoped. Though equal employment laws seek to limit the worst effects of bias, compliance isn’t prevention; more importantly, the rules were designed to stamp out oppression, not help businesses recruit and retain the best talent.

On the other hand, actively controlling for bias can produce much better hires. To this end, good recruiters and staffing agencies with the right technologies can help lessen the risk of your making unconscious mistakes. Their people bring some much-needed perspective into the process, while their skills and behavioral assessment systems help compensate for bias by surfacing qualified candidates that may challenge hiring managers’ unconscious preferences.

Don’t Give Bias a Chance

With so much emphasis on diversity in the workplace and complying with laws, it’s easy to pretend there’s no bias problem, especially when you’re the gatekeeper of a team or organization. But no law or policy can change the way our unconscious minds function.

Hiring managers may unconsciously prefer candidates who are well spoken, fit and attractive (lookism); who went to the same college or share other personal traits (in-group bias); presume certain qualities exist based on widely held beliefs about unrelated characteristics of individuals (stereotyping), or make important hiring decisions based on other forms of false reasoning.

This is where keeping some distance between your company and a candidate can help prevent bias. Thirty years ago, only ten percent of orchestral musicians were women. Today that number has tripled, thanks largely to the introduction of “blind” auditions where would-be virtuosos played behind curtains so that judges would make decisions based on what’s important and not what’s irrelevant.

What it means to keep up the curtain until candidate fit is assessed depends on your business and the job in question.

A simple hiring process that compensates for bias might look like this:

  • Step 1: A phone interview with a list of standard questions.
  • Step 2: A skills and personality assessment profile, taken online.
  • Step 3: Internal assessment and vetting of qualified candidates.
  • Step 4: Face-to-face interviews with multiple team members.

Notice that it’s not until step four that hiring managers meet the candidate, and by that time much of the decision has already been made.

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Hiring a recruiter can also help keep candidates at a distance. Recruiters’ relative distance from the process puts them in a good position to correct for and challenge hiring managers’ possible biases. They are therefore less likely to choose candidates that went to the hiring manager’s college or hail from her home state, have an attractive profile picture, or come from a diverse demographic background.

Of course, not everything a hiring manager likes about a candidate can be put down to bias. Exactly where favoring candidates who are well spoken, for example, bleeds over from being a legitimate qualification to a personal bias isn’t always clear. Often it depends on the job description, often on a “gut” feeling that a trait would make them better team members.

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Challenge Bias; Don’t Reinforce 

Bias is alive and well in recruiting. And if you think you’re not part of the problem, you probably haven’t yet appreciated just how easy it is to judge a candidate based on something other than what’s needed for the job.

A good process that keeps candidates at a distance for much of the process is a good defense, but until hiring managers realize bias is inevitable, they should give those they’d dismiss out of hand a bit more benefit of the doubt.

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