Unconscious Bias in Recruitment – Guilty as Charged?

We all like to think that we are open-minded, objective and non-discriminatory. However, the truth is that every day we are fighting our natural tendencies to be just the opposite. Unconscious bias underlines so many of our decisions and nowhere is this more prevalent than within the context of recruitment. Research has shown us time and time again that diversity is good for business , with diverse organisations consistently outperforming their competitors. But how do we create diverse organisatons when our natural tendency is to maintain the status quo and base our hiring decisions on deep seated prejudices and stereotypes?

What is Unconscious Bias?

The first step to tackling unconscious bias is understanding it and its various guises. Essentially unconscious bias occurs when our brains make sweeping judgements or assessments about a person or situation without us realising. These judgments are heavily influenced by our background, experiences, culture and education. In an effort to raise self-awareness, we have outlined some of the most common forms of unconscious bias below.

Key Forms


Conformity Bias –This is the view that as individuals we have a tendency to be influenced by the values or behaviours of others rather than exercising our own independent judgement.  For instance, we may be swayed by the strong opinions of more dominant characters on a hiring panel and fail to voice our true thoughts and opinions on a candidate. In these instances, good candidates may be overlooked if for instance one interviewer takes a dislike to a candidate.

Affinity Bias – Arguably one of the most common forms of bias within recruitment, affinity bias essentially stems from our comfort with the familiar. Research suggests that we have a natural tendency to favour those that we share some commonality with. Perhaps we attended the same university or we share a common hobby or personality trait. We are naturally drawn to what we know and by implication can end up in a position where we are hiring candidates in our own image something which has a huge impact for organisations seeking to establish a diverse workforce.

Beauty Bias – Whilst the majority of us would deny that we makes judgements on a person’s looks, research would suggest that we are pre-disposed to unconsciously favour candidates we find aesthetically pleasing. Whilst this can be based purely on our perceptions of attractiveness, more often it stems from our unconscious need to select a candidate who meets our pre-conceived idea of what someone in a particular role ought to look like. Research has identified that we naturally favour height in applicants for leadership roles. We may consider a beautiful woman to be a bad fit for a truck driving job but a good fit for a front of house position.

Halo Bias – Coined originally by the psychologist Edward Thorndike in the 1920’s, the Halo effect was initially used to describe the outcome of a social experiment whereby commanding army officers were asked to rate junior soldiers in terms of their intelligence, leadership, character and physique. Thorndike observed that in instances where one positive dominant characteristic was identified that this tended to shape the commanding officer’s views of the individual as a whole. The implications of this phenomenon for recruitment are significant. Upon reviewing a CV or interviewing a candidate for the first time, a potential employer may quickly hone in on one particular positive attribute, experience or skill and unconsciously make sweeping conclusions about that candidate’s ability or character. It seems that first impressions really do count and can work to our advantage where we make a good first impression.

Horns Bias – The Horns effect is essentially the opposite of the Halo effect whereby we unconsciously let negative first impressions cloud our overall view of a person. For instance, where a candidate is late for an interview this may be viewed negatively by an employer who may make a snap decision that the candidate is arrogant and has poor time management. Once this negative impression is created it is very difficult to reverse this mindset even where a candidate performs excellently at interview and displays other admirable qualities.

Contrast Bias – This form of unconscious bias is extremely common within a recruitment context. For instance, where an employer is reviewing a large number of CV’s, they are more likely to compare a candidate’s CV with one they looked at just before rather than reviewing it in isolation and on its merits. The same can be said in an interview context, where an employer is likely to directly compare a candidate they are interviewing with a candidate they interviewed just before. In these instances, quality candidates may be unfairly overlooked by employers who compare them to a previous candidate instead of judging them against the requirements specified within the job description.

Confirmation Bias – This form of bias involves favouring information that affirms our existing judgements and beliefs and overlooks information which would serve to contradict these. For example, where an interview panel are interviewing a candidate who has been recommended by a senior person within the business, they may already hold this candidate in high regard and unconsciously seek out information to support this preconception. At the same time, they may ignore any unfavourable qualities if this information does not uphold their existing pre-conceived notions.

Attribution Bias – Attribution is essentially the way in which we rationalise the causes of events or behaviours. We make self-serving internal attributions when we attribute excellent test results on our hard work and abilities, however where we have performed badly, we are more likely to blame this on outside factors such as the test having not been explained to us properly. When it comes to our judgements of others, this notion is flipped on its head. Research would suggest our tendencies are the reverse when judging others. For instance, in an interview we may attribute an individual’s successes to be the result of nepotism or luck and their failures to be the result of a poor work ethic or incompetence.

Now that you have an understanding of the various forms of unconscious bias we would suggest you read our curated article “7 Practical Ways to Reduce Bias in your Hiring Process”. This article offers practical guidance on mitigating unconscious bias within the recruitment process and may help you avoid the pitfalls commonly associated with this issue.