Bias in Hiring: It’s More Subtle than You Think

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Bias, namely unconscious or implicit bias, has been a hot topic among social scientists, in the public sector, and for businesses of all sizes in recent years. However, most everyday conversations about bias that I have encountered in the craft brewing community tend to center around cultural bias—that is, relying upon cultural stereotypes about a group of people to influence hiring decisions about a particular candidate.

Cultural bias is prevalent and can have profound effects. Consider the results of this 2003 National Bureau of Economic research study entitled, “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination.” The researchers that conducted the study responded to help-wanted ads with a fabricated resume. The resumes submitted to hiring organizations were identical in all but one detail. To manipulate the hiring organization’s perception of race, each resume is assigned a stereotypically Black or African American presenting name or a stereotypically White or European-American presenting name. The results revealed significant discrimination against Black or African American presenting names. White or European presenting names received 50% more callbacks for interviews.

Despite the continued prevalence of cultural discrimination in the workforce, there are other types of bias that may collectively contribute more to the current lack of diversity in the craft brewing industry. Overt bias, like that described above, is relatively easy to identify and address. More subtle forms of bias are harder to recognize, and thus their effects can be much more difficult to curb.

Lesser-Known Types of Hiring Bias

Below is a list of five types of bias that can enter the hiring process during the review of application materials or the interviewing stages. These aren’t the only types of hiring bias that have been documented and studied, but these five have risen to the top of my watch list over years of working with craft brewers.

Affinity Bias is the tendency to favor people who are similar to oneself or who are perceived to be part of the same social or psychographic groups as those responsible for hiring. This kind of bias can be difficult to identify because it is often part of seemingly positive intangible assessments like “culture fit.”

The Halo Effect occurs when those in charge of hiring assume that a candidate’s success or history of excelling in one area will automatically lead to success in others, or when one trait or accomplishment is used to make an overall judgment of that person. This type of bias can benefit those who are very comfortable in interview settings—perhaps because they perceive the organization to be full of people like themselves and so they are more relaxed and confident—and those who have had opportunities to excel in settings associated with prestige. This kind of bias can be difficult to identify because identifying positive traits and accomplishments in a candidate is one of the main objectives of a job interview. The trick is not to allow these positive traits and accomplishments to have undue influence.

Confirmation Bias is the tendency to seek out information that confirms or validates existing opinions and preconceived notions. As a hiring bias, this manifests as a tendency to focus only on the aspects of a person that coincide with pre-established opinions of the candidate’s suitability for a role. This kind of bias can be difficult to identify because it is often part of identifying red flags that could lead to a poor fit down the road.

Anchoring Bias is the tendency to fixate on the first substantive piece of information that is received about a person—this forms an anchor for perceptions. As a result of that fixation, hiring professionals evaluate all newer information received about the candidate from the reference point of their anchor instead of considering it objectively. In hiring settings, this may multiply the negative impact of perceived red flags or exaggerate the benefits of perceived assets. This kind of bias can be difficult to identify because first impressions are culturally given considerable importance and often thought to be neutral.

Consensus Bias is the tendency to shift one’s opinions to be more consistent with the opinions of others when hiring is conducted in groups, particularly when the members of a hiring group or committee are at different levels of leadership or if there are manager-team member dynamics present. This kind of bias can be difficult to identify because members of hiring committees may feel it’s appropriate to defer to those who are more senior or longer tenured.

How to Combat Hiring Bias

Several strategies can be used to reduce the influence of each of these types of bias. However, it is important to start with one unavoidable truth. The strategies below—particularly when combined with pipeline development strategies that result in an uptick in the number of applications and resumes received—require more time, preparation, and self-reflection from those involved in the hiring process. Developing effective systems and tools to deal with this additional work—and a sense of willingness derived from an authentic understanding of more inclusive and equitable hiring practices—is key. 

Using a Hiring Kit

The training, preparation, and tools described here can be combined into a hiring kit that your organization can use for each type of hire or each hiring committee. A basic kit might contain:

  • Job announcement templates for the position being recruited.
  • Best practices for assembling hiring committees. 
  • Educational materials about types of hiring bias. 
  • Educational materials about state and federal hiring laws.
  • A list of parallel skill sets and experiences to be on the lookout for during the material review and interview.
  • A standard set of interview questions.
  • Evaluation rubrics or feedback forms.

Affinity Bias

  • Remove personally identifying information like names and addresses from resumes or applications to conduct blind reviews.
  • Consider using committees of three or more to conduct hiring and consciously build committees that reflect existing occupational, demographic, and psychographic diversity.
  • Rather than hiring for “culture fit,” strive to hire for “culture growth.” Identify where your culture has blind spots and limitations and use new hires to add new perspectives, skills, and competencies. 

The Halo Effect

  • Educate your hiring professionals about the potential for bias due to the halo effect, and what kinds of interview behaviors may be attributable to situational comfort or discomfort. 
  • Consider work-sample tests, where interviewees are given the opportunity to briefly shadow a current employee, work in the setting for which they are interviewing, or solve a work-related problem that is like one they might face on the job.

Confirmation Bias

  • Equip hiring professionals with a list of parallel skill sets that have historically translated to success in the role. Candidates who look good on paper are often those with direct job experience. There may be a vast universe of skill sets derived in other industries or nonprofessional settings that will effectively prepare candidates to be successful in a role. Surveying your existing workforce about what kinds of nontraditional experiences (in and outside of the workplace) help them succeed at their jobs is a great place to start.
  • Use structured interviews so that hiring professionals cannot selectively seek information. Pose the same set of questions in the same order to all candidates. This will allow clearer comparisons between them.

Anchoring Bias

  • Use a weighted rubric to score applications, resumes, and interview performance. Determine how much weight each item on your rubric will carry before you begin the process of reviewing candidates. For the best results, make sure that the job announcement used to recruit candidates and the rubric used to evaluate candidates correspond.

Consensus Bias

  • Allow each member of the hiring committee to fully provide their feedback before sharing their impressions with others. The use of standardized feedback forms and scoring rubrics can facilitate this process.

Download a printable version of this resource below.