Hiring process

12 types of hiring bias and how to avoid them

Hiring bias exists whether we want to admit it or not. Luckily, there are ways to eliminate the bias so we can make smarter hiring decisions.

12 types of hiring bias and how to avoid them
Listen to this article. Audio recording by
Brook Fischer

Let’s start with the bad news – everyone is biased. You, me, and everyone on your hiring team. Bias can have a negative effect on hiring, causing you to miss out on talent and even result in mis-hires.

But it goes even deeper than that. According to Francesca Gino, professor at Harvard Business School, "Biases cause us to make decisions in favor of one person or group to the detriment of others.”

The good news is that there are simple and concrete ways to remove bias from your hiring process. It all starts with understanding what the most common types of unconscious bias are.

The 12 most common types of hiring bias:

  1. <a href="#First">First impression error</a>
  2. <a href="#Groupthink">Groupthink (a.k.a. conformity bias)</a>
  3. <a href="#Halo">Halo/horns effect</a><div id="homerun">
  4. <a href="#Similarity">Similarity bias (a.k.a. affinity bias or like me bias)</a>
  5. <a href="#Gender">Gender bias</a>
  6. <a href="#Cluster">Cluster illusion</a>
  7. <a href="#Stereotyping">Stereotyping bias</a>
  8. <a href="#Confirmation">Confirmation bias</a>
  9. <a href="#Anchoring">Anchoring bias</a>
  10. <a href="#Ambiguity">Ambiguity effect</a>
  11. <a href="#Beauty">Beauty bias</a>
  12. <a href="#Intuition">Intuition bias</a>

Why it’s important to avoid hiring biases

The way we think is shaped by unconscious biases, which influence the way we perceive reality and make decisions. If biases are left unchecked, we can end up overlooking talented candidates and undermining Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the workplace. This is shown to have a negative impact on all kinds of things, including team satisfaction, a company's bottom line and society in general!

As we said before, we all have biases. They don’t make us bad people. They often contradict our core values and beliefs. We should not expect to be able to get rid of them, because that’s impossible. The best we can do is learn what our biases are, acknowledge them without too much judgment and do everything in our power to dismiss them.

When that happens, as a team you are able to:

  • choose from a larger and more diverse talent pool
  • improve the experience your candidates have when applying
  • give opportunities to talented people who may be marginalized by society
  • hire skilled candidates based on facts rather than feelings
  • avoid costly mis-hires
  • boost morale and create a sense of belonging, which encourages your current team members to stay with you longer
  • enjoy all the benefits of having a diverse and inclusive team

How to avoid bias in hiring

If you want to move towards unbiased hiring, you’ll need to start by recognizing bias within yourself.

Let’s start by digging into the 12 most common types of hiring bias. Not only will you learn how to recognize and acknowledge these, we’ll share insights and tips we've gathered from experts on how to keep bias from negatively impacting your business’s hiring process! 💪

A quick FYI: You'll notice that there is some overlap in a few of these biases. Yes, they can be related, but these are distinct mental constructs that need to be explored individually so you can learn how to quickly spot and work through them.

<div id="First">1. First impression error</div>

This type of bias allows your initial judgment or first impression of a candidate — good or bad — to affect your feedback or decision. The interviewer (influenced by the candidate’s appearance, handshake, tone of voice or their video call background) either likes the person or not and the rest of the interview is spent trying to confirm these first impressions.

Howard Ross, a thought leader on unconscious bias, explains first impression bias this way: "We make quick decisions about people. It's the nature of how the mind works. We make determinations about who is safe and who isn't safe. This causes us to make a decision to be interested or not interested in someone based on things that have nothing to do with their competence, professionalism or experience but rather of who they are reminding us or of what past experience we had with people like that."

Decisions based on first impressions can regrettably result in bad hires, because none of the judgments you can make about a candidate in the first few minutes of meeting them will be an actual indication of motivation or skill.

💡 Tip for avoiding first impression error:

Evaluating your candidate in multiple contexts is a great way to avoid first impression bias. You want to make sure candidates have the chance to give you second, third and perhaps even more impressions.

For example, when the New York Times hires for tech roles, candidates begin with phone interviews that include a technical discussion, as well as hands-on coding exercises using a shared screen. Next they do a take-home assignment and end with an in-person interview where they can meet colleagues from different departments. All of these contexts give a candidate the opportunity to show you more than what you can get in a first impression.

<div id="Groupthink">2. Groupthink (a.k.a. conformity bias)</div>

This is allowing the opinions of others to affect your feedback or decision. Evaluating candidates can be very hard. We're told all our lives that it's not okay to judge people and then you suddenly find yourself having to judge people when involved in the hiring process at your company.

So when a team member has a strong opinion about a candidate, it might be very tempting to go along with their line of thinking and come to a consensus faster. When you change your choices to match the opinion of the group, this is a form of bias.

💡 Tip for avoiding groupthink (a.k.a. conformity bias):

Give yourself the chance to form your own opinion. Do this by agreeing not to share opinions about candidates with colleagues too early and document your own evaluation before allowing it to be influenced by others.

When Scribbr, an Amsterdam based startup, went remote in response to COVID-19, they were able to break the cycle of sharing opinions too soon.

Operations Manager Hilde Prinse explains, "Normally my colleague and I would walk out of an interview and immediately share our thoughts about how it went. It's hard not to when you're there together. Now a video call ends and you're on your own. That's why we started using scorecards that we fill in individually after the interview. We'll then schedule a meeting later to compare and discuss."

📣 Hiring remotely? Be sure to check out these remote interview questions and tips on how to avoid remote hiring bias.

<div id="Halo">3. Halo/horns effect</div>

Halo/horns effect is allowing one major strength or weakness of the candidate or one likable or dislikable quality to affect your overall feedback or decision, rather than thinking holistically. When the halo effect seeps in, you can mistakenly construct a very positive overall view of a candidate just because one specific characteristic that you view positively stood out. This one characteristic ends up making you less critical (or not critical at all) about other characteristics. In essence, you can get blinded by the perceived halo. 👼

The horns effect is basically the opposite. It’s when something specific about the candidate (a supposed character flaw or an aspect of their personality that irks you) grabs your attention and you get caught in the horns. 😈 You let that perceived negative thing influence your decision to not hire them.

💡 Tip for avoiding halo/horns effect:

Rational statements are your friend! Always back up your opinion with rational statements when discussing candidates and their qualities with your colleagues. Not only will this help you to back up your gut feeling (or not), but it will help inform your hiring team too so they can make a clear, rational decision.

Dan Pupius, former Head of Engineering at Medium and founder of Range, asserts that if someone on your hiring team can't back up a judgment with something the candidate did or said, then it shouldn't count or even be shared at all. If someone shares a positive or negative feeling about a candidate, ask them to produce evidence to support it.

<div id="Similarity">4. Similarity bias (a.k.a. affinity bias or like me bias)</div>

A study from Northwestern University shows that most interviewers look for people who look like them and also search for what they have in common. When an interviewer finds commonalities with a candidate, it’s more probable for them to like them and evaluate them positively. On the flip side, they might overlook great candidates because they don't have as much in common or feel that instant connection.

Let’s be clear: likability matters, especially when you know you’ll be spending lots of time working together, but it cannot be the main criteria when hiring.

Harvard economist and bias expert Iris Bohnet suggests, “Let’s make likability criteria No. 8. You have your seven questions, but you are now explicit and honest with yourself that you actually care about that. You are aware that that might be fraught with bias, because you are more likely to like people who look like you and share the same stuff, but at least you’re honest about that. Then you decide how much weight you want to put on No. 8. Is that part more important than the skills and competencies, is it 10% [of the evaluation], is it 20%? Make the invisible visible, and at the end, people still have to make a judgment."

💡 Tip for avoiding similarity bias (a.k.a. affinity bias or like me bias):

We tend to gravitate towards candidates we view as being like us or having similar traits or characteristics, but those things aren’t correlated to on-the-job performance. Focus on the concrete skills and unique qualities that would contribute to your team.

Put together a diverse hiring team with varying perspectives and together you can determine the ways a candidate could end up being a “culture add” rather than a “culture fit.”

Looking for tips on how to make DE&I actionable for your team?

Check out our Guide to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the workplace.

To the guide

<div id="Gender">5. Gender bias</div>

Ever seen the movie Meet the Parents? When Ben Stiller’s character tells his soon-to-be in-laws he’s a male nurse, they think he’s joking. When they find out he’s not, they proceed to ask him why he didn’t become a doctor.

This is a perfect example of gender bias – when people associate certain positions with different genders. An unconscious bias like this one can result in individuals favoring one gender over another when hiring for a particular role, even if the candidates have similar skills and job experience.

This bias is complex and plays out in different ways. It could mean preferential treatment in an interview, offering a higher or lower salary, or viewing someone as more or less competent based on their gender identity.

Jean Back, an employment attorney who trains companies on employer compliance, notes that both men and women can have unconscious gender bias due to perceptions that stem from childhood, traditions, culture or norms. “It does not require bad motives,” she adds. It simply needs to be checked and addressed. She points out, “Many decision makers who learn about unconscious bias make concerted efforts to relearn how they think and make decisions.”

💡 Tip for avoiding gender bias:

You can start by educating your team on gender bias, talking openly about it in the workplace and doing an audit of your internal processes to make sure they're fair and equitable. Read: offer equal pay for work of equal value and close that gender pay gap!

Also make sure your hiring process is gender inclusive. When you write your job descriptions, avoid gender-coded language with the help of tools like Gender Decoder and Textio. Using gender neutral language will encourage more people to apply and also speak to those who identify as trans or non-binary.

You want to ensure all team members (present and future!) feel seen, valued and respected. If you haven't done so already, offering sensitivity training will help your team become more aware, accepting and appreciative of diversity, and give everyone more tools to address unconscious biases.

📣 If your company cares about diversity, equity and inclusivity, then don't forget to include that in your career page!

<div id="Gender">6. Cluster illusion</div>

Let's say you're reviewing a handful of applicants for a position. Three have college degrees and the others do not. You start thinking about your last two stellar hires, who both hold college degrees. In an effort to continue this "positive streak," you decide to invite the degree-holding candidates for interviews.

Except there is no streak. It's an illusion!

Gob from Arrested Development doing a magic trick.

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, psychologists and preeminent scholars on the clustering illusion, assert this happens because our brains want to see patterns and trends in data. They're easier to comprehend and draw conclusions from. This happens to people all the time, and takes place even in the most analytical of minds. Case in point: statisticians often draw incorrect conclusions that any given sample of a large population was more representative of that population than it actually was.

💡 Tip for avoiding cluster illusion:

To avoid this type of bias in hiring, you really just need to use common sense and remember that correlation isn’t causation. Avoid leaping to conclusions based on small clusters of irrelevant “data" and stick to the facts.

Be very clear about what it is you’re evaluating candidates on. List out traits and skills you’d like the person to possess and avoid adding “nice-to-haves”, which can lead to bias. And make sure you ask insightful questions in your application form and in interviews so you can dig deeper and learn more about a person's ability to perform on the job.

<div id="Stereotyping">7. Stereotyping bias</div>

This is when your mind creates an overgeneralized belief about a particular group of people which leads you to a prejudiced attitude or an oversimplified opinion about someone. For example, studies have shown we have fixed ideas of how warm, friendly and competent we think someone is based on factors like age, appearance, race, religious affiliation, gender or sexuality.

Organizational psychologist Mari Jarvinen shares in Equalture’s podcast Oops! I’m biased, “We stereotype all the time. That’s just something that’s really innate. We do it as humans because our brains are wired that way. That’s why it’s so important to think about and be aware of it, especially in settings like the workplace or hiring. It affects people’s lives in a big way if we are not aware of how it’s affecting our thinking or the way we make decisions."

💡 Tip for avoiding stereotyping bias:

Jarvinen recommends listing out your assumptions about a candidate and discussing it with your team. This way you learn what exactly triggered them and what triggered you as well. She explains that you can still keep your hypothesis, "and maybe it will get confirmed or it won’t, but you need to still honestly have an open mind to changing it. That’s the important part."

Try incorporating objective tools like hiring assessments or other psychometric tools (e.g. motivation questionnaires and reasoning tests) in your hiring process. Jarvinen says the idea is to take those results into account "and maybe be willing to change our minds about what we thought about the person in the first place."

📣 For more tips, check out the episode on stereotyping bias from Equalture's podcast series, Oops! I'm biased.

<div id="Confirmation">8. Confirmation bias</div>

A recent study showed that almost 60% of interviewers will make a decision about a candidate’s suitability within 15 minutes of meeting them, with almost 5% deciding within the first minute! Sometimes people have made this decision before the interview even happens.

All it takes is just one little piece of information like a previous employer or a candidate's alma mater for an interviewer to form an opinion about the candidate. If confirmation bias kicks in, they'll spend most of the interview subconsciously trying to validate their opinion or pre-existing belief through irrelevant and non-essential interview questions.

💡 Tip for avoiding confirmation bias:

Remember that a candidate's former employer or education does not equate to quality work. Interrogate your own thoughts and opinions and come up with a plan to find the actual information you need to make a decision.

Cody Horton, Founder of Diverse Recruiting Experts, suggests asking the person or people on your hiring team who will be interviewing, "Why do you think it’s important for us to interview candidates in a fair and equitable way and how do you see yourself being able to contribute in that process?"

One strategy is to agree on a list of job-related interview questions with your hiring team, make sure you ask all candidates the same ones and score them based on their responses. Of course you may end up asking more clarifying questions, but always be aware of your motives and be sure you're not asking things that aim to confirm your beliefs.

That means no leading questions, which “lead” a candidate towards the answer the interviewer is hoping to confirm. Instead of asking, "Did you learn about [insert skill] at [insert school or company]?" (a leading question), try an open-ended question like, "How have you learned more about [insert skill] through your experiences?" Bonus: open-ended questions will give you more information about a candidate’s experience, drive, decision-making skills and thought processes than a simple yes/no question.

<div id="Anchoring">9. Anchoring bias</div>

Anchoring bias involves fixating on a piece of information you have on a topic or person and using this as a reference point – or an anchor ⚓ – to make subsequent decisions. It's often the first piece of info you've received early in the decision-making process (for example, information spotted on their job application form, CV or LinkedIn profile) and it can prevent you from considering or accepting any other information that follows.

Sounds a bit like first impression error, no? Well, anchoring bias is a bit different because we can become rigidly attached to the information or become anchored to expectations that have nothing to do with the candidate.

Case in point: you might find yourself anchoring your opinion on a previous team member you liked working with. Or there could be an "ideal candidate" you've created in your mind and then you expect the candidate to fit this image. It goes without saying that this is unrealistic and can prevent you from hiring someone who might bring something fresh and new to your team or business.

💡 Tip for avoiding anchoring bias:

Creating an “ideal candidate” image can prevent you from seeing both red and green flags. Try having an open mind and envisioning how differing candidates with differing backgrounds can be perfect for this role in different ways.

And if you're replacing a teammate, don't focus on a precedent set by that person. That anchor (the idea that the candidate needs to be similar to this other person to do a good job) will just weigh you down and you could end up missing out on a great hire.

<div id="Ambiguity">10. Ambiguity effect</div>

Ambiguity effect – a bias that causes us to avoid options that we consider to be ambiguous or lacking information – is basically a "fear of the unknown." Here's a hiring example: you might feel like it's better or safer to hire someone who worked for a well-known company compared to someone who has worked at companies you're not familiar with.

Or maybe you dismiss a candidate because you’re missing information on their résumé or LinkedIn profile. Recent research by ResumeGo has shown that applicants with gaps in their résumés are 45% less likely to get invited to an interview than those without.

That's a lot of missed opportunities! Brad Thomas, a recruitment manager at Orange Quarter, argues, "Taking time out of work can allow someone to gain practical experience and skills that can end up helping their career in the long run. It may even encourage a pivot to an entirely new industry."

💡 Tip for avoiding ambiguity effect:

If you work with CVs when hiring, remind yourself that the information contained within is actually not the best predictor of job performance. You're going to have to talk to candidates to figure out who they are, what they're capable of and what type of environment they do their best work in.

Don’t reject candidates because of a lack of information. If you're not sure about something, then it's your job to find out more.

Cody Horton of Diverse Recruiting Experts advises, "Stick with the candidate. Don’t shut down because bias kicks in and you’re deciding, 'I’m going to no-hire this candidate because they don’t have the language that I’m looking for or they didn’t answer my question in a way that I was expecting, because everyone on this team always answers it a certain way.' If you have a diverse slate of candidates, they’re going to communicate differently. I always say, 'Stick with the candidate.' Probe. Ask more questions.”

<div id="Beauty">11. Beauty bias</div>

Beauty Bias makes you prefer candidates that you perceive as more attractive, as these people are commonly perceived as happier, more sociable and successful than people you don’t find attractive. According to Daniel Hamermesh, author of the book Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful, conventionally attractive people are hired sooner, get promotions more quickly and earn more than people who are not considered to be conventionally attractive.

So how does this bias play out in job interviews? In a study by Rice University, people with facial blemishes, birthmarks or scars were more likely to be rated poorly by their interviewers. The interviewers actually recalled less information about these candidates, which negatively impacted their evaluations.

💡 Tips for avoiding beauty bias:

This is a big bias to tackle, so we've got more than one tip for you. First off, it helps to educate hiring managers and teams on beauty bias so they can then come up with objective criteria to compare against a candidate’s performance.

Rice University Professor of Psychology Mikki Hebl notes, "When evaluating applicants in an interview setting, it's important to remember what they are saying. Our research shows if you recall less information about competent candidates because you are distracted by characteristics on their face, it decreases your overall evaluations of them."

That said, it helps if you can record and revisit your interview. You can use a tool like Brighthire to do this. Recording gives you the space to listen, have better conversations and later share and review the interview with your hiring team.

Finally, Christina Tymony, a Senior DEIB Strategy & Enablement Manager at SeekOut, suggests sending out messages to your team before they enter an interview reminding them to check their biases. She says these reminders are helpful "because it can become really easy to revert back to your natural tendencies. We always have to stay vigilant around this.”

<div id="Intuition">12. Intuition bias</div>

Intuition bias in hiring occurs when our brain picks up micro-signals during an interview which it then associates with certain qualities, personalities and past experiences. Our gut instinct takes over and we trust it.

Gut instinct on its own is not a bad thing. It's a survival mechanism designed to let us make quick decisions without having to overthink issues. The problem is when we shift our focus away from skill set, experience and on-the-job potential and then let our feelings or emotions influence our hiring decision.

This doesn't mean you should ignore your gut feeling in interviews. You can certainly listen to it, but don't rely on it exclusively. You need to question yourself, gather more information and justify your choice with evidence.

💡 Tip for avoiding intuition bias:

Remember that feelings are subjective and lack validity. To reduce bias in interviews, Christina Tymony from SeekOut recommends adding as much structure to your interview and hiring process as possible.

According to Tymony, "The goal of creating a structured interview process is to really remove subjectivity from the interview. We’re going to have a set number of interviews, we’re going to hone in on the questions that we ask and make sure that every candidate actually goes through the same process, they’re evaluated the same way and that the interview team has consensus on what is good, what is poor and what’s not acceptable."

Eliminating bias in hiring

It's important to realize that unlearning your biases is a lifelong process. Biases are ingrained in us all by the culture and environment we grow up in, so don't beat yourself up about it. Just commit to working on it. Forever.

This means acknowledging your biases and addressing them so you can create a fair hiring process and make better hiring decisions. A good way to work on this as a team is to get everyone set up with DE&I training.

Howard Ross, author of Everyday Bias, claims that the most effective types of training – the ones that lead to more egalitarian behavior – are ones that help you to understand how your mind works and how you make decisions, instead of simply demonstrating what social bias you have. He recommends finding structural and systematic ways to apply what you learn in these trainings to your hiring process.

Make it so that avoiding bias is top of mind throughout the entire process. Once you know what your biases are, the easier it is to recognize and dismiss them.

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About the author
With a background in education and journalism, Brook has spent the past 18 years crafting and editing insightful content for small to medium-sized businesses. Her current favorite topics in the hiring space include employer branding and how to create a positive candidate experience. She lives in Toulouse with her husband, two sons and one sweet Staffy.

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