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Reducing Unconscious Bias in Hiring

It’s way past time to take action on inclusion and antiracism efforts. The hiring process is a great place to start.

Quick, whom do you picture when we say the word “genius”?

Was the person that came to mind a man? If you’re like 90% of Americans, it probably was.

Unconscious bias is when we believe a stereotype that forms outside of our conscious awareness and we act upon that stereotype unintentionally—we don’t even know we’re doing it. The causes for these stereotypes are usually so ingrained in our everyday lives, and have been since childhood, that they’re difficult to recognize within ourselves and even the most well meaning organizations.

This topic is tragically more relevant than ever as we consider how continued racial injustice affects our daily interactions, even in the workplace. It’s way past time to take big action on inclusion and antiracism efforts. The hiring process is a great place to start.

How does unconscious bias influence hiring?

Unconscious bias in the hiring process can manifest itself in many ways. It can influence how we judge someone’s name, where they went to school, and much more. We might ask interview questions that try to confirm our bias. We might judge people based on superficial factors that are not relevant to job success. We might pick candidates similar to ourselves.

This affects the hiring process because it introduces discrimination. And discrimination can lead us to mistakenly eliminate qualified candidates.

As busy professionals, we’re bound to experience information overload and can only process so much, but this is when humans naturally default to bias. That simply shouldn’t happen in the hiring process. It’s better to take our time, recognize where our unconscious beliefs are coming to bear, and develop methodologies to reduce those biases.

Primary methods for reducing unconscious bias in hiring

Some common practices for reducing bias already exist, many of which are actionable for today and set a framework for the future. For example, unconscious bias training for all employees can help them spot biases in colleagues and in themselves and provide a process for reporting or changing them. Setting company-wide diversity goals is another essential task. At Modern Tribe, we’re looking at ways to do this and how to measure our efforts.

Something we’ve invested a lot of time in over the last year is developing a structured interview process. Honestly, we don’t have it down pat yet. It’s very time consuming and can make our conversations with interviewees feel robotic sometimes, but the pros outweigh the cons. It’s important to us that we do the work, no matter how messy.

Here are some steps that have proven helpful as we develop our structured interview process:

  • Define clear skill set criteria that is related to success in that role. Job descriptions should also avoid gendered language (including pronouns) or extreme but ambiguous words or phrases, such as “coding rockstar” or “dominant designer,” which could deter some potential applicants from applying in the first place. At Modern Tribe, we use Textio to help reveal any gender bias in our writing and suggest alternatives.
  • Ask each candidate the same interview questions. A candidate might talk about something that we want to comment on or, in casual conversation, would dig into a little deeper to build a personal connection, but we can’t with this process. Asking each candidate the same questions helps prevent us from asking questions that try to justify our bias or might inform our choice simply because we like them. It gives each candidate a fair shot at making an impression and keeps the focus on the job-related factors.
  • Facilitate trial projects. To get a better idea of how a promising candidate might perform on the job, ask them to participate in a trial project where they’re given a task that’s relevant to the role they’re seeking. Trials aren’t part of the hiring process at most companies, but we’ve found them to be a valuable two-way street of sorts. Not only do they allow us to assess skills rather than character traits, but they also give candidates an opportunity to assess our workflows and tools, leading to a more informed employment decision. To ensure that projects align with the day-to-day work and expectations associated with a particular job, supervisors should help structure them and provide criteria for evaluation. Just be sure to communicate instructions and deadlines early and clearly so everyone involved is on the same page. We also suggest paying candidates to complete a trial. When you’re willing to compensate them for their time and effort, it builds goodwill and shows you’re serious about finding the right fit for your team.
  • Create rubrics. A hiring rubric is essentially a table or matrix that compiles essential information about each candidate side by side and in one place. Example categories can include years of experience or job-related skills. Our rubric was informed by this guide from Google re:Work. We define the criteria that would determine success in the role and develop interview questions based on that criteria; we also determine and include what an answer to each question would need to cover to signal that the candidate would be capable of meeting the success criteria.
  • Train interviewers. Give your interviewers instructions on how to take clear notes, use the rubrics, stick to the facts and provide feedback, which they should turn in as soon as possible after the interview. It’s also important that interviewers understand the hiring process; explain to interviewers why this consistency matters and why they’re being asked to stay within certain parameters. We’ve found Google’s re:Work interview training guide especially useful here, too.

It’s worth noting: If you’re attracting a representative demographic but end up hiring homogeneously, you have an interviewing problem. But if you’re not attracting a representative demographic to interview, you might need to look even deeper at how you recruit. How do you write your job postings? Where and how do you place them? You’re going to keep running into the same lack of representation even after you fix your interview process if BIPOC candidates don’t feel comfortable applying for the positions or even see them in the first place.

Goals for reducing bias in our own hiring process

We’re not perfect. We’re listening and learning right now, too, and we think of what’s happening today as a movement, not a moment. It’s a call to action, not platitudes.

In that spirit, we’re all about setting internal goals to try to achieve the big one: A truly diverse and equitable workplace. Here are some of our plans to be better at reducing bias in how we hire.

  • Refine our rubrics so that we’re more clearly tying skill set criteria to success in the role. The idea of “cultural fit” is problematic, especially in a majority white company. It’s key that our role descriptions and expectations are aligned with talent and skill so that we make decisions based on skill set criteria or role success factors and not intuition. Intuition is naturally skewed.
  • Refine the structured interview process and find an ideal system for documenting everyone’s individual feedback before a group conversation. This will help solve for the fact that our interview process has been very time consuming in the past.
  • Improve how and where our career opportunities show up. Are our career site images representative of our values of a diverse and inclusive work environment? Would a candidate feel like Modern Tribe is a place that is welcoming to them? Could we more actively source from and post in places where underrepresented groups will find our job listings? Do we have standards and guidelines in place for asking candidates their preferred pronouns and sharing that information with interviewers?
  • Continue developing how we hire by committee. Research shows that hiring committees can make less biased decisions. Instead of having one person, you have several trained individuals discussing the options and making a choice, which can lead to more control and accountability in how you hire. A hiring committee should be composed of people not directly involved in the interview process. This committee will review blind candidate information gathered through all stages of the hiring process and then have a discussion that should lead to a hiring recommendation made by consensus.

These are just a few actionable items on our list in relation to hiring practices. Cultural change is essential, too. Recently, we shut down business as usual at Modern Tribe and The Events Calendar to create a Day of Action, committed to encouraging and providing space for our employees to take antiracist action in their everyday lives. (We’ll share more on this Day of Action soon.)

These are just small steps, we know. But we hope taking them frequently and intentionally can help us play a bigger role in building a braver, brighter, better connected world.