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What is unconscious bias?

Written by: RICS Recruit
Published on: 27 Jun 2024

And how can hiring managers avoid it?

Everyone has unconscious bias. We are all a result of our upbringings, our surroundings and our experiences. And, unless we recognise and address our biases, we will treat others unfairly and reduce their opportunity to thrive, while our companies will miss out on the best recruits – all without us even realising.

If you’ve ever asked yourself ‘Am I biased?’, here’s a guide to identifying common biases that occur during the hiring process and how to avoid them.

How to overcome unconscious bias in recruitment

There are three stages in addressing unconscious bias to benefit your business.

  1. Understand what constitutes unconscious bias, where we form opinions about candidates based on initial impressions or irrelevant criteria.
  2. Acknowledge that you – and everyone in your organisation – will have unconscious bias to some degree.
  3. Implement practices to reduce and prevent such bias.

1. Understanding different types of bias

Unconscious bias can be further broken down into implicit and cognitive as well as unconscious biases. These are all different ways that our brains can influence our thoughts and actions without us even realising.

While each involves the brain processing information, they operate at different levels of awareness and can affect our interactions and decisions when recruiting or interacting with colleagues.

What is implicit bias?

Implicit bias refers to associations with, beliefs about, attitudes to or actions towards any social group or individual based on stereotypes or past experiences. For instance, someone may have unconscious attitudes around race, ethnicity, age, gender and sexual orientation based on their previous experiences.

Implicit bias is present when you make a decision about an individual based on their gender, race, age or other protected characteristic. Subcategories can also include bias based on someone’s name, and whether they are cis- or transgender or nonbinary.

Examples include:

  • a candidate’s name influences your opinion, whether negatively or positively
  • you feel a woman may not be suitable for the role; maybe you have never seen a woman do this job before, so presume it’s not appropriate and dismiss their application before giving them a fair chance
  • a job carries an expectation of familiarity with property technology (proptech) and you have not considered a more experienced candidate because you thought they would be too old to know about this; this also applies if you wrongly assume an older employee isn’t able to learn new skills at work
  • if you work for someone younger than you, you assume that they cannot have enough experience to be a good manager.

What is unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias is similar to the implicit kind, but goes deeper into the subconscious to shape our thought processes in ways we might not consciously recognise.

The different types are as follows.

  • Affinity (or similarity) bias: you prefer candidates who share your traits, backgrounds or interests. It is crucial to remember that this is not a popularity contest. You are not looking for someone who you would want to go to the pub with or someone who attended the same university as you.
  • Attribution bias: the main characteristic of this is perceptual error, where a recruiter doesn’t have the full picture about a situation so instead uses the information available to them to draw conclusions about a candidate’s character that are usually unfounded. For example, if someone doesn’t make direct or prolonged eye contact during an interview it could be considered a sign of poor confidence. However, direct eye contact can be regarded as rude in some cultures, particularly if it’s maintained. Excessive eye contact isn’t appropriate in Japan or South Korea, for instance, because it’s considered disrespectful; it has nothing to do with confidence in this context.
  • Confirmation bias: seeking details that confirm your existing beliefs about a candidate, you overlook contradictory evidence and ultimately make a biased hiring decision. A simple example of this is when employers pass over women for promotions as they consider them to be too emotional to be good leaders, even where they have a record of managing teams or projects successfully.
  • Halo or horns effect bias: the halo effect occurs when you form a positive impression of a candidate based on one trait or characteristic that overshadows other important details. In contrast, the horns effect means reaching an overall negative conclusion about a candidate based on a single trait or characteristic that leads you to ignore their strengths and qualifications.

What is cognitive bias?

Cognitive bias centres on short cuts or errors in thinking by our brains to simplify decision-making, which can lead to inaccurate judgements or perceptions.

For instance, we might assume that the people we get on with are more reliable than colleagues we barely know.

Cognitive bias can include the following.

  • Beauty bias: this favours candidates perceived as physically attractive, irrespective of their qualifications or skills. This could also include a bias against people you consider to be short, tall or overweight.
  • Confounding bias: this is when you allow a trend rather than clear, consistent data to affect decisions. For example, a recruiter might believe that they need an introvert for an IT role or an extrovert for their sales or marketing team, and look for those traits rather than considering candidates’ skills and experience. It might be that those roles tend to bring out certain traits in a person – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the trait itself is what is required, or that it should determine the successful candidate.
  • Contrast bias: you judge candidates by comparing them with others rather than against a set list of criteria.
  • Information bias: this occurs when you are provided with incomplete or imbalanced information that prompts you to think a certain way. Recruiters should be wary about making a decision based purely on a candidate’s CV and cover letter: that is why preset questions at interview better enable you to find out more about the applicant’s skills for the role. An example of information bias could be jumping to a conclusion about a candidate whose CV indicates they have had a career break, or assuming foreign candidates will not have the right to work or need visa sponsorship.

If you still feel you don’t have bias in your recruitment process then you are either in a very small minority or not being entirely honest with yourself.

2. Acknowledging and addressing biased recruitment

Now you are aware of the many different kinds of bias and have acknowledged which types you are prone to, it’s time to consider practical measures and changes to your processes to challenge recruitment bias.

The first things you might do include:

  • anonymising CVs
  • establishing diverse interview panels, to ensure that individuals’ biases are not replicated by other interviewers
  • devising scorecards – listing a set of skills and knowledge that the job requires – and only assessing candidates against these.

You can also review practices to identify whether your company has been hiring in a biased way. If it has, set up continuous reviews of data and case studies. These should be at the heart of every firm’s strategy for identifying bias in recruitment strategies and internal business procedures.

Regular analysis of hiring, promotion and performance data for demographic disparities could flag up unconscious bias in the decision-making process. Frank feedback is an inclusive way of uncovering bias in interactions, policies or practices, and can be gained from surveys, focus groups, or confidential or anonymous reporting mechanisms.

Observation and monitoring of interactions and decision-making processes in meetings, interviews and performance evaluations are a powerful tool for identifying bias in real time. Your company’s policies and procedures are also worth assessing and updating to check their potential for bias and lack of inclusivity.

External consultants can also provide an objective perspective; but a combination of some or all of the techniques discussed above means that awareness and education can begin in house.

3. How does your business challenge bias?

Educating your team should be the first thing that you do to raise awareness of common biases and how they affect decision-making.

Unconscious bias training is recommended. This is available free of charge for those with an active subscription to the RICS qualification or member CPD support packages. It can help recruiters and hiring managers to foster a fairer, more inclusive environment, as well as benefiting hiring practices.

It should also help to create standardised evaluation criteria for candidates. Heightened awareness across a business will inevitably enhance awareness and accountability, and in turn create a collaborative culture that values diversity and proactively works to mitigate bias in all areas.