A Closer Look at the Research Done on Unconscious Implicit Bias in Hiring

by Angela Griffiths

Unconscious implicit bias in hiring is a real problem in the workplace. It can also be extremely detrimental to the long-term success of your diversity and inclusion efforts. In many cases, personal feelings and thoughts toward race are not openly stated, but it has been proven that these biases exist.

In order to create a better hiring process, you have to look at this bias and understand how it affects those who are looking to fill a job opening. To help you understand more about implicit bias in hiring, here is a closer look at the research done on unconscious bias in hiring.

What is Unconscious Bias?

Diversity in hiring is a hot topic at the moment, and for good reason studies repeatedly show that diverse teams perform better. But what is holding companies back from hiring diverse candidates?

Well, a lot of it boils down to unconscious bias.

Unconscious bias is the bias we all have in our brains that we may not realize is there. It’s a natural occurrence, and it refers to the snap judgments and stereotypes we make about people based on our background, cultural environment, and personal experiences such as gender, race, age, and education.

Evidence that Unconscious Biases Exist

implicit bias in hiring

Unconscious biases have been found to be one of the reasons for the gender gap in hiring and promotion. For example, a study done by Yale University found that individuals were more likely to hire a male candidate over a female candidate.

They were also more likely to believe that the male candidate was more competent than the female candidate. Hiring managers who believed they were unbiased had an unconscious bias against women candidates in their selection process.

Research has shown that we tend to hire people who are similar to ourselves. We find characteristics like our own race, gender, and educational background more appealing. Research has also shown that those who are the most qualified for positions aren’t the ones who get hired the most.

The implicit bias in hiring managers is often credited with these results.

Types of Implicit Bias in Hiring Found in Organizations

Implicit bias is the idea that we all have unconscious thoughts and feelings about people based on various characteristics, such as race, ethnicity, age, gender, or sexual orientation. In other words, it’s the prejudices and stereotypes that live in our subconscious.

Here are the most common types of implicit bias in hiring:

1. Gender Bias

Our preconceived notions about gender and the roles we play in society are so ingrained that they can often influence our behavior without us even realizing it. This is unconscious bias, a phenomenon where people make quick judgments based on their background, cultural environment, and personal experiences. This type of social bias plays a role in hiring decisions too.

Women are less likely than men to be hired for many jobs as soon as they become available even when their qualifications are identical to those of men applying for the same positions.

A past study found that employers are 40% more likely to hire men than women for jobs requiring math skills. That number jumps to 50% for high-paying jobs. On average, one out of every two highly qualified women will not be considered for these positions.

In a recent report, Systematic Review of Research on Implicit bias on hiring, the results state that only 14% of women occupy senior leadership roles worldwide, and gender bias may be a reason why. This is true for many countries, including the United States.

Gender bias occurs when employers judge a job applicant based on their gender rather than their qualifications for the job. It can manifest in many ways, from hiring practices that favor men over women to offering women lower salaries than men with similar experience and qualifications.

Many companies recognize that gender bias is an issue and are actively trying to address it. For example, in 2015, Intel announced plans to spend $300 million on initiatives aimed at increasing diversity within the company and helping more women enter the tech world.

2. Racial Bias

Racial bias refers to making assumptions or judgments about a person based on their race or ethnicity. And while a majority of Americans believe they are not biased, studies show that many people do have an implicit bias in hiring when it comes to race.

Recent studies have shown that a person’s name can play a significant role in the way others perceive them. And it turns out that when it comes to the hiring process, names matter too. In fact, if you go by an ethnic name like Jamal instead of James it could significantly decrease your chances of getting hired.

For example, in a study using resumes with white-sounding names versus black-sounding names, researchers found that when the employer was unaware of the race of the applicants, there was no statistical difference between those who got an interview despite similar qualifications.

However, when the employer could see the name and race of the applicant, black applicants saw a 50% decrease in callbacks in comparison to white applicants.

Another study found that resumes from black-sounding names were 50% less likely to get callbacks than white-sounding names even though they were identical resumes with different names and contact information.

3. Age Bias

Young people are entitled and lazy while older people are stuck in their ways and lose touch with what’s new. Most of us have heard these or similar stereotypes about different age groups, or maybe we’ve even had them pass through our minds without realizing it.

It’s not just a question of whether any of these statements hold true or not, but it’s also about whether or not you would want to let that thinking impact your hiring decisions.

As with other forms of unconscious bias, age-related bias can creep into the hiring process in subtle ways that can prevent you from building the most effective team possible.

One common mistake is to assume someone won’t be a good fit because they don’t have enough experience in a particular area. This might seem like an objective assessment. After all, new graduates often don’t have much experience beyond what they gained in college, but it can result in missing out on a great candidate who has raw talent and potential to learn.

If a young candidate doesn’t have much experience yet, instead consider asking questions that reveal their broader understanding.

Age bias is a real problem in the workplace, as illustrated by a recent piece in The New York Times. As the article explains, employers are permitted to ask job candidates about their age and to state a preference for younger workers.

It’s even possible for them to refuse to hire someone based on age, provided that they can make a case that the decision is job-related and consistent with business necessity.

While employers are not supposed to discriminate against older people when it comes to hiring, reports suggest that discriminatory practices are common. For example, employers may explicitly state that younger workers are preferred or use vague language such as recent college graduates in job listings.

They may also list an excessive number of requirements or ask questions that have little bearing on an employee’s ability to do the work.

In some cases, these practices may be intended to screen out older workers while still appearing job-neutral. In other cases, however, they might be rooted in unconscious bias. Even if your organization doesn’t explicitly prefer younger workers, you might find yourself making decisions based on age without even realizing it.

4. Implicit Bias Against Candidates with Disabilities

There are more than 60 million Americans living with a disability today. An estimated 40% of the U.S. population will develop a disability at some point in their lives.

Despite these numbers and the fact that it’s illegal to discriminate against individuals with disabilities in the workplace, people with disabilities face significant hiring discrimination and unemployment rates as high as 70%.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) forbids employers from discriminating based on disability when hiring or managing employees. However, evidence suggests that employers often violate this law by basing hiring decisions solely on job qualifications and experience, without taking into account a candidate’s physical or mental ability to perform the work.

In fact, many employers still assume that people with disabilities are less productive simply because they have a disability.

Employers also assume that providing accommodations for workers with disabilities is expensive — and are surprised to find that most accommodations cost $500 or less and take very little time to implement.

The Job Accommodation Network reports that 62% of accommodations cost nothing at all while only 4% of accommodations cost more than $1,000. More often than not, the cost savings to businesses far outweigh any costs associated with making reasonable accommodations for

5. Demeanor and Personality Traits Bias

This is a cognitive bias that affects how we interpret information about others. It’s when we take one thing such as someone’s good looks and use it to form an overall opinion about that person such as that they’re smart and funny.

It’s the reason why some interviewers opt for a more casual first meeting – such as lunch, coffee, or drinks – instead of a traditional face-to-face interview. By changing the setting, they hope to get a better feel for who an applicant really is under pressure.

This translates into hiring by way of cultural fit which is a huge problem for many organizations. The most desirable candidates have similar personalities as those already on the team, making them easy to work with and collaborate with on projects.

But when hiring managers give preference to people who have similar personalities as those already on their teams, they miss out on candidates with diverse skills and points of view ones who could offer valuable contributions to the company if given the chance.

For many of us, hiring is subjective. We feel better about one candidate than another because she seems more likable, brighter, and more confident. But likability, brightness, and confidence are also values that tend to be seen as male personality traits.

As a result, women candidates who show these same qualities may be penalized for their “masculine” traits in favor of their more “feminine” counterparts.

What Companies Can Do to Reduce Implicit Bias in Hiring

Unconscious bias is a major issue in the workplace, especially when it comes to hiring. While most people don’t realize it’s happening, those who are on the receiving end of unconscious bias know all too well how unfair it can be.

This bias is often unintentional, but that doesn’t make it any less harmful. In fact, implicit bias in hiring can have a profound impact on employees and the overall culture of the workplace. The good news is that there are ways you can reduce or even eliminate implicit bias in hiring.

The first step to reducing implicit bias in hiring is to determine your company’s core values and ensure you’re incorporating them into your hiring strategy. Once you’ve determined your values, you’ll want to pick job candidates that align with those values and share similar personality traits or work habits.

When choosing interviewers for the hiring process, it’s important to pick people from different departments and levels within the organization. Having a variety of perspectives involved in the interviewing process will help you reduce unconscious bias in your office.

The Bottom Line

Implicit bias in hiring has become a huge topic in the world of HR, and many different studies have been conducted to try to pinpoint the problem. Research shows that companies with diversity-positive leadership tend to hire a higher number of diverse candidates.

The truth is, it’s hard for an employer not to be influenced by their unconscious preferences towards specific traits. This can be particularly harmful to minority job seekers and veterans, even if those employers have no intentions of discrimination. Although current laws are in place to protect against various types of discrimination, more education needs to be done on the topic of bias. As employers start to take note of their unconscious biases they will find ways to prevent them from being enforced.

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