How to tackle unconscious bias when hiring for a startup

5 mins

What is unconscious bias?

Simply put, unconscious bias is something everyone has because of the way we process information and assign meaning to something in a split second. This results in a variety of biases based on factors such as appearance, similarity, familiarity, and other criteria our brains use to categorise things. When it comes to hiring, the impact is that decisions can be made that poorly affect people’s chances of being hired, paid fairly, or promoted.

How do we tackle it?

Firstly, we must recognise that every one of us has unconscious bias and accept that fact. That might sound obvious, but it is a huge step towards change, and you should challenge both yourself and others to acknowledge this. Once you are aware of this, you can start to take steps to improve equality in your hiring and management processes. If you are a startup business, you may not have the budget to afford an HR team to look at this for you, but you can make big steps towards improvement by considering about the following points.  

Don’t make hasty decisions

It’s easily done. You advertise a vacancy and suddenly you have 100+ CVs in your inbox, but make sure you avoid doing a two-second scan of CVs and making a thumbs up/thumbs down decision based on what’s contained in the top section (name, education, current employer).  

Instead, have clear hiring criteria for every role against which you can measure applicants. That way, you can start to take a more standardised approach to screening CVs and be more confident that you are shortlisting or rejecting candidates for the right reasons. If the time involved is overwhelming, do not be tempted to cut corners. Consider using a recruitment agency or AI tools if appropriate but be sure to research these to ensure you aren’t just handing over to someone else’s bias be that a recruiter or programmer.

A lot of people talk about “gut decisions” when hiring. There is nothing wrong with trusting your instincts, provided you can verbalise what that feeling is based on and it is not down to bias. Let’s say Candidate A and Candidate B are equal on paper but you just “have a feeling” that Candidate A is a better fit. Ask yourself why that is? Is it because they have similar shared interests, are from a similar socio-economic group, or have better rapport because you feel you understand more? If that is the case, open the discussion up within the team and ask to be challenged on it. Have you ever made a snap decision about a colleague, acquaintance or neighbour only to be proved wrong once you took the time to get to know that person?

Educate yourself and those around you

Self-awareness is not everyone’s strength, so it’s important to put in place training for yourself and your team. If you run a business or are in any type of recruitment position, it is essential you take steps to help ensure fair representation in terms of diversity and inclusion. One resource that is both free and comprehensive is Harvard University’s Implicit Association Test. These tests cover areas including age, gender, race, sexuality, weight and disability. They won’t cost you anything and are a great first step to starting the conversation of unconscious bias in your workplace, both with your team and with yourself.  

Once you’ve taken steps to address your own and your team’s unconscious bias, you need to think about what methods you’re going to take to effect positive change. In terms of hiring, you can start by reviewing your process and procedures.

Standardise your recruitment and development processes

Without a recruitment process in place to follow, managers and business owners are more likely to wing it and make decisions based on feelings and rapport rather than the fact of whether the person is the best candidate or not.  

Things you can do to standardise recruitment include recruiting blind, by setting up a system whereby names, age, sex, etc. are removed from CVs before you review them.  

Set standard interview questions that are asked of everyone as well as tasks that help candidates demonstrate their ability to perform the role. Make the outcomes quantifiable so you can score people on their performance. For candidates that are rejected from the process, keep a record of the reasons why to ensure fair practices.

At Wilson Grey a lot of our clients talk about wanting to hire for cultural fit, but you need to be clear on what that actually means. Cultural fit should be based on a shared set of values and a belief in the mission of the business. What it shouldn’t boil down to is which university someone attended or whether their personality will be a great fit with the rest of the team when you have drinks or which sports teams they support.

Once you have hired someone, have clear policies and criteria in place for promotions and bonuses/pay rises. There is an argument to be made for salary transparency across an organisation, but whilst this is not an option for everyone, your staff should be clear on what they need to achieve to reach the next step in their career with your business.

If you have the budget or volume of recruitment to allow for the use of AI tools, there are a number of HRTech businesses that can help you eliminate unconscious bias at the initial stages of hiring. As with anything, AI does have its limitations when it comes to recruiting and finding the best candidate, but if you’re looking to scale a workforce quickly it can be a great benefit.

A good recruitment agency should be able to assist with all of the above so be sure to speak with yours about how they can help improve your hiring processes in order to limit or remove unconscious bias.

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