Why you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover: how bias influences our hiring decisions without us even knowing it.
9 minute read
Back in the second century AD, the Roman author Juvenal famously wrote “Fronti nulla fides” which when translated means “Never have faith in the front”. Over the centuries, this saying has appeared in numerous famous works and has evolved to become one of the world’s most well-known idioms: “Don’t judge a book by its cover”.
Whatever its expression, its fundamental meaning remains the same: forming an opinion on something or someone based on their outward appearance is ill-fated. In fact, if you take a deeper look beyond the surface, that person or thing may be very different (in a good way) to what you expected.
This natural human tendency to use cues, past experience and our knowledge to make assumptions and decisions about people (or things) is often referred to as bias.
In this article we’ll explore why bias is unavoidable and unconscious and how you can reduce bias to create a more diverse, stronger team.
The problem with bias
A recent article by Business Insider found that as humans, we make decisions on people in only seven seconds. These decisions are based on biases we don’t even know exist - gender, name, accent, background, where they’re from. Even though we can make judgements about people within seven seconds, it takes 12 contradictory reasons to undo that initial judgement.
Biases are powerful, helpful shortcuts but are often made quickly and subconsciously.
In a recent article by Harvard Business Review about ways to reduce bias in the hiring process, Professor Francesca Gino at Harvard Business school suggests that unconscious biases have a problematic effect on our judgements and decisions. “They cause us to make decisions in favour of one person or group, to the detriment of others,” she says.
This means that without knowing it, in the workplace our judgement or biases about an individual can affect their likelihood to get promoted, get hired and in a broader sense, impact diversity in the workplace. When biases become widespread and part of the ‘way we do things around here’ within an organisation, this can impact attitudes and company culture and create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
We’re all a little bias (even if we don’t know it)
Implicit bias, or more specifically cognitive biases, is the mind’s way of making automatic associations between two concepts very quickly. It’s a mental shortcut, or heuristic, that allows humans to process information very quickly. In most instances, it’s a healthy human adaptation that allows our brains to process all the information we’re bombarded with and the speed at which we need to make decisions.
“People seem to have no idea how biased they really are. Whether a good decision-maker or a bad one, everyone thinks that they are less biased than their peers” says Carey Morewedge, Associate Professor of Marketing at Boston University.
Even babies, it seems, learn biases quickly according to a BBC article on how young babies prefer and gravitate towards people who have the same accent as their parents from an early age and throughout adulthood.
You can’t get rid of it or unlearn it but you can become aware of your bias blind spot and interrupt it.
Some of the more common biases, particularly pertinent to recruitment, include:
Confirmation bias - a tendency to search for, interpret, focus and remember information that conforms to our pre-existing views.
Projection bias - the thinking that others have the same priority, attitude or beliefs as you.
Anchoring bias - the tendency to rely too heavily upon, or ‘anchor’, one trait or piece of information. Usually the first piece of information you encounter.
Ingroup bias - favouring members of your own group or tribe.
Categorisation bias - a way to organise yourselves and others into groups and using generalisations to make sense of it e.g. all salespeople, all PAs etc behave like this.
How you can minimise bias in the hiring process
Our implicit biases affect the hiring process by increasing the subjectivity and decreasing the objectivity of our decisions and judgements. That means that if our biases remain unchecked, there is a tendency to hire in our own image.
Affect who we attract: how we write our job description and the language we use will attract different candidates.
Affect who we hire: it impacts the selection and interview process.
The good news?
There are ways to reduce or minimise bias in the hiring process to make sure we’re hiring the best fit, most capable and predicted top performers into the roles, making stronger, more diverse teams?
Here are our top suggestions:
1. Take more time to write job descriptions
The language we use in our job descriptions will attract (or detract) certain candidates .
In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Psychology in 2015 it was shown that words such as ‘active, adventurous, confident, driven and independent’ attracted predominantly more masculine candidates.
In comparison, words such as ‘agree, commit, cooperate, honest and support’ attracted a disproportionately number of female candidates. Programmes such as Textio (used by Starbucks and Twitter) help automatically proof-read job descriptions and highlight words and phrases that may be negative, positive, repetitive, cliche, jargon, too feminine or too negative. Words to definitely avoid: ninja, killer, rockstar
2. Select candidates using blind recruiting techniques
Whilst bias can never be totally eliminated from the hiring process, artificial intelligence and machine learning tools such as Jump.Work, helps objectively identify suitable candidates through automated assessments (personality, cultural, skills) and predicts which ones will be top performers, without the bias inherent in a normal traditional process.
It’s reported that a hiring manager or recruiter only spends 6-8 seconds on a CV and makes a judgement from that. Blind recruiting techniques delve deeper than this initial CV glance and are better at predicting a candidates success than humans.
3. Give candidates sample work tests or skills tests
Skills tests and assignments that mimic the type of skills needed or work that would be done are the best indicators of future job performance. They allow candidates to be assessed on ability and help calibrate your judgement on how candidate A performed vs candidate B. It forces employers to evaluate the candidate’s work versus unconsciously judging them on appearance, gender, age, name and even personality.
4. Standardise interview questions
Unstructured interviews - which lack defined questions and which are more organic in nature - are often unreliable for predicting job success. Structured interviews, on the other hand, offer another data point for analysis and allow employers to compare candidates on a much more equal basis, with minimal bias. In these type of interviews, candidates are asked exactly the same questions which allow employers to evaluate them against the skills needed for the job.
5. Involve other colleagues in the hiring process
Often referred to as ‘collaborative hiring’, bringing other colleagues into the selection and interview process who have diverse sets of experiences, skills, and backgrounds, allows you to check the bias blind spots you may have. What results, is not only a fairer hiring process but also more diverse, stronger teams.
Why reducing bias makes good business sense
Reducing bias in the hiring process and hiring more diverse candidates in terms of background, experiences, personality, and skills, doesn’t just result in a more diverse workplace overall but in fact, makes pure business sense.
More diverse companies are better able to win top talent and improve employee satisfaction, customer focus and decision making, all of which increase the bottom line but also brings a certain level of competitive advantage for companies.
This isn’t just anecdotal.
- Gender diverse companies are 15% more likely to outperform their non-gender diverse counterparts
- Ethnically diverse companies are 35% more likely to outperform their counterparts who aren’t as ethnically diverse
All of this shows that minimising bias in the hiring process and building stronger more diverse workforces has a strong, proven effect on the success of a company.
And what business wouldn’t want that?
(For a bit of fun and to test your biases, you can literally judge a book by its cover on Goodreads.com. Select the books you would read based on their cover and Goodreads.com will reveal the actual rating the book received that thousands of readers gave it)
Jump.Work is an innovative talent platform dedicated to Legal and Business support Professionals. We use comprehensive assessment profiling and AI to go beyond a Professional’s CV to discover their true fit and potential performance based on cultural, motivation, personality and skills. To learn more, request a free demo or watch a quick product video here.