Five unconscious biases that could be ruining your NFP’s recruitment process

Hiring the right people is arguably one of the most important responsibilities of any not-for-profit organisation.

But what if a bias was interfering with your ability to do just that – and you didn’t realise it?

According to some fascinating research published in the Journal of Accountancy by US university professor Dr Norma Montague, unconscious bias is a crucial influence to be aware of when making decisions.

While Montague’s research focused on accounting decisions, the biases she identifies are relevant to all decisions – especially to important ones like which candidate your organisation should hire.

Montague explains that these biases as the unintentional consequences of habits and ‘heuristics’ – that is, the “mental shortcuts that allow people to make quick, efficient decisions”.

And while a reliance on mental shortcuts to make decisions can sometimes work, it can just as easily be disastrous.

So here are five common unconscious biases that you should be aware of every time you sit down to interview a candidate or assess a series of candidate interviews:

1. Availability bias

Availability bias occurs when you make a decision which is “unduly influenced by information that is most memorable or easily accessible.”

For example, availability bias could result in the favouring of candidates who were interviewed towards the end of an extensive round of recruitment, whose responses are easier to remember.

And when the information on which you’re basing your decision is subjective – for example, when talking about your “gut feelings” about candidates, rather then relying on written data – you’re even more susceptible to availability bias.

For example, it might be easy to recall an interviewee who made an impression on you because you both worked at the same organisation in the past. This, however, risks crowding out memories of less memorable candidates and thereby impacting your final decision.

2. Anchor bias

Anchor bias causes people to give more weight to the first piece of information gathered, subconsciously comparing all subsequent material against it.

To illustrate this type of bias, Montague conducted a test with a group of students she split into two – one received the arbitrary number ‘300’, while the other was given ‘3,000’.

When asked to estimate the length of the Mississippi River, the first group’s average response was 800 miles. The second? 2,800 miles.

In recruitment decisions, an anchor might take the form of a resigning staff member you’re looking to replace – against whom all new candidates might be subconsciously compared. This might lead to you hiring someone who is similar to the person leaving the job, but who’s a flawed candidate for the role for other reasons.

3. Overconfidence bias

Often leading to over-promising and poor decision-making, Montague says overconfidence is common among high-level leaders – and it’s difficult to avoid.

As such, overconfidence bias might crop up among experienced recruitment professionals who could dismiss pertinent information if it doesn’t match long-standing beliefs or expectations.

For example, if you feel strongly in favour of a candidate and have recruited for similar positions in the past, overconfidence bias might lead you to skip calling a candidate’s references before offering them a position.

4. Confirmation bias

When people subconsciously seek information that supports their pre-existing beliefs, their decisions are influenced by confirmation bias.

For example, you could form an immediate subconscious opinion about a candidate based on any number of factors – a mutual friend, their previous workplace, university, where they live, their gender or their age – and seek out information to support that opinion at the expense of other information.

That opens up possibilities such as great candidates not making it past the initial screening process, if, for instance, a hiring manager has a pre-existing idea of what age or gender or education level the perfect candidate might have.

5. Rush-to-solve bias

Have you ever been under pressure to fill a position very quickly?

Then you’ll probably be familiar with the rush-to-solve bias, which is when a decision is made without fully considering all of the available data.

In this scenario, information that should be considered in the decision-making process can be overlooked. For example, not taking the time to advertise the job widely enough to reach the right audience. Or not taking the time to read candidates’ CVs closely enough to spot inconsistencies or “red flags” that might show a person won’t succeed in the role. And since you’re in a hurry, you also become more vulnerable to other biases.

So what should you do about these five biases?

If nothing else, developing a strong awareness of these situations is the best weapon against unconscious bias – because despite our best intentions, they do impact the decisions of even the most seasoned HR and recruitment professionals, even without realising it.

However, there are some valuable strategies to address unconscious biases – and in our next post we’ll share some specific, practical tips from Google to help you avoid unconscious bias when hiring new staff.

Image: Martin Fisch/Flickr.

Do you have any strategies for dealing with bias in recruitment? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

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