Revelation! Unconscious Bias Hurts Your Hiring Results Across All Candidates

One of the primary reasons why increasing amounts of technology are entering the recruiting space is the recognition that recruiters and hiring managers harbor a great deal of unconscious bias, which has a negative impact on a firm’s recruiting results. I live in the Silicon Valley, where in an effort to increase diversity hiring many high-tech firms have rushed to offer unconscious bias training.

Unfortunately, that narrow focus only on diversity hiring is a mistake. The same unconscious biases that limit the hiring of diverse candidates, unfortunately, also screen out many highly qualified candidates who are not diverse. So, if you want a dramatic improvement in your overall hiring results, broaden your scope and systematically identify hiring biases that affect all candidates.

If you are not familiar with the term hiring bias, it means the screening out of otherwise-qualified candidates based on invalid or unproven stereotypical assumptions that an individual makes about candidates with a particular characteristic. An unconscious bias can occur against people of a particular race. But, biases can also occur against candidates who are perceived to have other less-desirable characteristics, like passive personalities (as some mistakenly assume can be indicated by a weak handshake or a lack of direct eye contact).

Having unconscious or conscious biases (that have not been validated) being applied during hiring is a huge problem. Those biases result in the screening out of qualified individuals who are simply perceived to fit a negative stereotypical connection (i.e. visible tattoos possibly indicate a nonconformist). From a business perspective, this means that your firm will lose a large number of diverse candidates but also many highly desirable innovators, creative types, strategic thinkers, and techies because of invalid stereotypical connections. So if you want to improve your firm’s hiring results and your quality of hire, this article will help you to identify the places within your hiring process where most of these biases do their damage.

Note: During the Spring 2017 ERE event I will lead a follow-up session that will cover solutions to these problem areas and alternative interview approaches that have proven to dramatically reduce all kinds of bias.

Times During The Recruiting Process Where Most Biased Assessments Occur

There are many times during the hiring process where recruiters and hiring managers have multiple opportunities to apply their unfounded biases. It is the responsibility of recruiting leaders to systematically examine their process in order to determine during which steps that these unfounded biases are typically applied.

  • Biases against names — there are numerous elements in a resume that frequently cause a recruiter or hiring manager to inaccurately (meaning with no statistical validation) use a bias to screen out otherwise qualified candidates. One of those resume elements with the largest impact is the name of the candidate. Something as simple as a name could reveal diversity and could trigger an unconscious bias on the part of a reviewer. In fact, one University of Chicago/MIT study sent out 5,000 identical resumes and showed that simply changing only the first name on a submitted resume from Aisha to Kristen would increase the response rate from the firm by more than five times (from 2.2 percent up to 13 percent). As a result, some firms are now electronically obscuring the names and other irrelevant information on resumes until the initial interview slate is selected. Other name-related biases include a hard to pronounce name or a name that could indicate that a candidate was older or born in another country.
  • Biases applied during resume screening — many resume reviewers consciously make a decision to reject candidates based on unfounded stereotypical connections (meaning there is no statistical connection). For example, a candidate may be unjustifiably rejected because of their home address (because the reviewer determines it to be in the wrong part of town). Other areas where unfounded biases are applied include when candidates attend a lesser-known university (even though there is no evidence that employees from lesser-known schools underperform), the fact that they are currently unemployed, or their grades are too low (which may not predict success in this job). Sometimes on the surface, it seems to be common sense to reject people for an obvious reason, like having spelling errors in the resume (as Google automatically does). However, spelling capability may be unimportant in jobs that do not require much writing or spelling. And, this practice may disproportionately eliminate international candidates who rushed to convert their CV to English, and economically disadvantaged candidates who simply can’t afford the latest spellcheck program. The overall key to success is to simply not allow a recruiter to reject anyone based on even a single invalid/unfounded selection factor in a resume.
  • Physical cues that occur during the first minute of the interview — data shows that many hiring decisions are made within the first minute of the interview, so look for biases that often occur during that brief period of time. These unfounded biased “first-impression” hiring practices often include how the person is dressed for the interview, visible body tattoos and piercings, identifiable disabilities, initial handshake and eye contact, their voice inflection and of course, their race or gender. Obviously, encouraging interviewers to hold off any judgments until the end of the interview will minimize the impact of many of these early biases.
  • Physical cues during the remainder of the interview — even later in the interview, the decision to reject an otherwise qualified candidate is often made based on non-validated or unfounded factors. Those unfounded interview factors often include a lack of eye contact, negative body language, assessing the negativism of the candidate, and an assessment of a lack of energy, confidence, or aggressiveness. Providing reviewers with a checklist containing only the acceptable rejection factors and unconscious bias interview training can help to reduce interview biases.
  • Invalid or non-job-related interview questions  in many interviews, a majority of the questions don’t relate directly to the candidate’s ability to do the job within the company’s culture. Questions require some skill at storytelling, including all behavioral interview questions and generic questions like “tell me about yourself.” Unfortunately, these storytelling questions will end up prematurely screening out otherwise qualified candidates who are nervous or that are not accustomed to sculpting or telling stories. Giving candidates real problems to solve (i.e. having a chef cook an actual meal during work hours) is a much better predictor than any typical interview question. In fact, Google found that its unstructured interviews “were a random mess” when it came to predicting on-the-job success.

Final Thoughts

Anyone who has analyzed the typical failure rate of hiring processes already knows that the rate for most jobs approaches 50 percent within the first 18 months. Much of that ridiculously high failure rate occurs because numerous elements of the hiring process itself allow for the use of subjective rather than objective selection criteria.

The first step for improving your hiring results should be to identify the many areas highlighted in this article that can result in a conscious or unconscious biased assessment. And, next, identify ways that other firms have found to minimize those identified unfounded biases.

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The second step is to require recruiter and hiring manager accountability. Every evaluator must list and report the specific factors (i.e. the handshake, no eye contact) that caused them to reject the candidate.

Third, recruiting leaders need to develop the courage to try a split sample/control group experiment. This is the only real way to prove that a reduced bias experimental group would produce hires that perform a measurable percentage better in on-the-job performance in easily measured jobs like sales. When compared to the performance of hires from the traditional hiring process. And finally, in order to get executive attention, recruiting leaders need to work with the CFO’s office in order to assign a dollar amount to the cost of unnecessarily losing these qualified candidates who were rejected for no valid reason.


Authors note: I hope to see you at the ERE conference in San Diego; please take a minute to connect with me on LinkedIn.

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website and on He lives in Pacifica, California.



3 Comments on “Revelation! Unconscious Bias Hurts Your Hiring Results Across All Candidates

  1. John does his characteristically superb job of describing biases that produce false negative hiring errors. That is, falsely rejecting candidates during the hiring process. Many of the same biases, and some other ones, operate to produce false positive errors– falsely progressing candidates that should be screened out.

    But it is the whimpering conclusion to John’s otherwise fine column that leaves me scratching my head. John closes with three recommendations for reducing bias that leads to false negatives. Essentially, he recommends that hirers diagnose their biases and “cut it out”. Not very helpful. Mounds of evidence (See Meehl– Statistical vs. clinical prediction and Schmidt and Hunter, 1998, Psychological Bulletin) points to something much better– replacing hard wired subjective human biases with objective predictive analytics when it comes to screening and hiring talent.

    Psychometric analytics assessing intelligence, integrity, grit, and savvy do a much better job of screening talent, albeit with problems to fix. Many in the marketplace are science-free, penciled on the back of a napkin by someone made aware of the substantial recurring income to be had from a good looking “test”. Many created scientifically are too long, too sterile and too textual. As a result, almost no real contenders complete them online, particularly on mobile. See– Fortunately, there are visual, engaging, job-related online assessments that are as short as possible, but not shorter.

    What’s coming next is valid, objective assessment that uses predictive semantic analytics to machine-score past-performance interview answers and other forms of natural language. Assessment without assessing– at least without the candidate having to answer dozens of annoying opaque questions. More on that at (shameless plug).

  2. I can’t speak for the US market but one huge bias here in Australia that hasn’t really been focused on in this article is Age bias! The mandatory field “Date of Birth” can automatically screen out an otherwise excellent candidate before someone other than the computer sees a resume. It really is a very big issue here. Hopefully you have found a way around that!

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