Breaking Bias from the Hiring Process

During Pride Month we’re exploring how unconscious biases affect our ability to embrace diversity and we’re tapping experts to share how we can create more inclusive workplaces. What do you do to overcome your bias? #diversityisbeautiful

Can the sound of someone’s shoes on a hard floor, or a subtle word choice in a job description determine who gets hired for your team? Research suggests it can. Even beyond our conscious awareness, biases about educational background, previous employer, race, gender, sexuality, and age can sneak into our decision-making processes.

But research also shows that diverse teams are more innovative and make better decisions, so there’s great benefit to pinning down those moments when biases might drive our opinions, and figuring out how to rewire our thinking. We talked to a few experts for tips on how to spot bias, and move beyond it.

How Does Unconscious Bias Work?

If you could travel back in time to attend the symphony before the 1970s, you’d recognize the music, but the musicians would look different. At the time, almost all — 95 percent — of the players in major U.S. symphony orchestras were men. To help change that, orchestras tried a fascinating experiment — they had players audition behind a screen. The impact was surprising: in preliminary rounds, blind auditions increased the chances a woman would move on by 50 percent. With blind auditions for all rounds, women are 5 percent more likely to be selected than men.

“In the orchestra study, they even found that it’s not just sight that triggers unconscious bias. Consider the sound of smaller steps or the click high-heeled shoes that indicate a woman is walking. Now some orchestras even ask auditioning musicians to remove their shoes when they walk on stage. It’s amazing how many ways our senses can trigger bias, even when we don’t realize it,” explains Monica Kough, senior talent development partner at Adobe.

Today, thanks in part to blind auditions and quiet feet, we’re much closer to gender equality in symphonies, but unconscious bias in the hiring process is still very much an issue across industries. As Caroline Simard, senior director of research at The Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, says, “Unconscious bias is an error in decision making. Even when we want to make fair decisions, and merit-based decisions, bias introduces an error, or a bug, in the system.”

And bias, Caroline explains, comes from all kinds of messages we’ve received throughout our lives: “It comes from stereotypes, these generalized beliefs we have about categories or groups of people that we may not even be aware of. The beliefs start early — there’s even research showing that we talk about children in the womb differently based on our own perceptions of gender — and they shape our implicit beliefs about people.”

Where Does Bias Sneak into the Hiring Process, and How Can You Stop It?

Most managers don’t intend to let bias guide their hiring decisions, but there are many ways that it sneaks into the process. Jeff Vijungco, vice president of Global Talent, Technology & Insights at Adobe, notes that bias can enter the picture because we’re trying to make decisions too quickly. “This is called expediency bias,” says Jeff. “We’re rushing, and we just use our own opinions to make a call. That’s why I’m a big believer in the carpenter’s rule: measure twice, cut once. In the case of hiring, this means, hold on, think things through, and really be mindful of how you are making your decisions. I think there is real power in pausing.”

Caroline notes that when hiring goals aren’t specific, unconscious bias can take over: “The more subjective the criteria, the more probability there is of a bias in a decision. A lot of the work that we do with companies in our research is to engage them — the managers and people who are making talent decisions — in a process of clarifying criteria so that they can be more consistent and objective in how they apply it.”

Bias also finds its way into job ads, filtering out potential candidates before they even walk in the door. “The other day I saw a public job description that said they were looking for ‘a hot candidate who could join and be the man,’” Jeff recalls. “People have good intentions, but they don’t realize how, whether it’s subtle or blatant, some words can be off putting.” To help make sure listings don’t have bias baked in, Jeff’s team is experimenting with often uses a tool called Textio, which scans the language in job descriptions to make sure an entire demographic doesn’t get left out just because of word choice.

Jeff also keeps a close eye on source mix, charting how people come into the company to ensure candidates are hired from varied backgrounds: Are they employee referrals, internal hires, or candidates that come through our career site? “It’s a red flag when there’s a slant toward one source. It means there may be some bias. We even consider this in our university hires. Having a variety of universities represented is really important. It makes our team more representative of the real world and our customer base.”

Coaching teams against hiring candidates who are “cultural fits” is also key to our talent organization. Instead, hiring managers and interview teams are taught to look for “oddly attractive” candidates who complement Adobe’s culture. “We want candidates who bring a different point of view and creative friction,” Jeff mentions.

“And very soon, we will no longer be asking people, when we extend an offer, how much money they currently make,” Jeff adds. “We like to rip off the rear-view mirror and start fresh without inheriting the biases of the past.”

Moving Beyond Bias

Studies show that building a diverse team makes sense for businesses’ bottom lines. “There’s great research from Katherine Phillips from Columbia University that shows that diverse groups outperform homogeneous groups on decision making. And diverse groups are much better at innovation because they bring different perspectives, different solutions, and different viewpoints to a problem,” explains Caroline. “If you want to innovate, diversity is useful, however, bias can mess up that system.”

The solution, imperfect as it may be, lies in being conscious of potential sources of bias and creating procedures to circumvent it, like developing very specific hiring criteria and monitoring your hiring sources. According to Caroline, “You can’t rid yourself or rid other people of the bias they have in their brains just like that. If it was that easy, it would have been done already. The challenge, and the opportunity, is to view this as a process of continuous improvement and always make it a part of your operating practice to examine, inspect, and evaluate your decision making. There’s no quick fix. There’s no check-off-the-box.”

“With bias, you’re shutting down all the creative ideas that could make a product or a service even better,” notes Jeff. “I say, assume that ideas come from anywhere, let a thousand flowers bloom, and then curate from there.”

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