Making hiring decisions resistant to bias

So how do you ensure your hiring decisions are based on talent alone? Jonathan Bowring, leadership and organisational coach, and founder of Riversight is passionate about unlocking potential and helping people think. Here’s his advice... 

You’re lazy

Wait, hear me out on this: I’m lazy too – we all are. We don’t like hard work; our bodies are programmed to conserve energy, not wanting to expend a single calorie more than necessary. Witness our homes stuffed with every kind of labour-saving device, from the TV remote to the dishwasher, from the electric toothbrush to the hedge trimmer. We take the lift to avoid the stairs; it’s in our nature to cut the effort and find the most efficient way to get things done.

Our brains are no different – just like our muscles, they’re designed to minimise effort. Unnecessary thinking equals wasted energy and lost time. It’s more efficient to do as much as possible of our mental processing automatically, in the background.

Imagine if we had to consciously analyse every meal, trying to decide if the plate in front of us contained nutritious or toxic foods. Or if we had to thoroughly test every chair before we sat on it, to reassure ourselves that it would take our weight. What if we needed to consult a map and detailed directions for our daily journey to the office? We’d never get anything done.

Our brains have fantastic systems for effortlessly making most of our day-to-day decisions. They draw on experience, matching previous patterns and taking useful shortcuts which don’t consume our mental resources. That way we’re relieved of the burden of having to make conscious, deliberative decisions about everything in life. We’re freed to put our minds to work on new or more difficult problems.

How we judge people

So far so good. This unconscious, automatic processing helps us through the day, but it has some limitations, particularly when it comes to making judgements about people.

In prehistoric times we needed to make swift decisions about the people we encountered – are they from my tribe or are they outsiders? Friend or foe? Dangerous or curious? Cooperate, fight or run? Matching past experience with how they looked and sounded, we quickly categorised people to stay safe and protect what was ours.

In the modern era, making such snap judgements about each other doesn't serve us well. We’re so global and multicultural, so varied in background that it’s rash to decide by a couple of crude cues what someone is really like.

But that doesn’t stop our brains from trying. Keen to save energy, they naturally rely on familiar patterns and assumptions. It costs us to think hard and do the deeper, slower work of assessment, while deferring our conclusions. Frankly, stereotypes just come more easily.

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Six ways to reduce unconscious bias 

When hiring, these natural tendencies can lead to bias. This disadvantages some candidates and robs our organisations of some of the best talent. It’s difficult to remove bias altogether, but here are some ways to reduce its influence in hiring decisions:

  • Be aware of the potential for bias. Keep in mind that you will have natural short cuts and preferences. Regularly question your assumptions about what’s really required, and what candidates really offer. Don’t just rely on a cosy chat and finding the right “fit”. Perceived rapport will strongly influence you and is most likely to occur with people who share your own characteristics. If interviewing over Zoom, be especially careful not to be influenced by the candidate’s home surroundings.

  • Get to know your own biases. Take a free Harvard Implicit Association Test to evaluate your unconscious attitudes to race, gender, age etc. See what the results indicate about your automatic thinking – you might be surprised!

  • Design against bias. Ensure that your hiring process works to reduce the influence of bias. Objectively test for the actual abilities and skills required for the role. Evaluate the competencies needed; quantify with scoring and numbers. Make the hiring process as standardised and repeatable as possible.

  • Involve other people. We each have our own innate biases and preferences. Seek input from different minds: involve more people in hiring decisions to balance the effects of bias. Deliberately choose a diverse group to assess candidates. 

  • Look in new places. Reduce the risk of “cloning” by investigating alternative sources of candidates. Interview from non-traditional backgrounds, prioritise potential over direct experience, try a different university, experiment with older hires, younger hires, non-graduates, non- whatever your “typical” is.

  • Hide the cues. Anonymise initial applications, removing key information such as name or where the candidate studied, minimising the influence of assumptions about gender, race and background.

Candidates: question your assumptions, too

Finally – you may be on the other side of the hiring equation, looking for roles. Bias can be at work here too, pointing you towards the same, familiar territory. You might automatically rule yourself out because “women don't work there”, “I’m way older than the average”, or “they only want someone full-time”.

Question those assumptions. Sometimes that company will be desperate to improve its gender balance, those extra years may offer a fresh perspective, or they’ll happily negotiate hours if you wow them.

Don't let your brain get away with taking the lazy option.


Jonathan draws from his former career in the technology and language industries. A seasoned site and operations manager, he’s run a £15M P&L with broad experience of outsourcing, offshoring, hiring, relocation and restructuring. Jonathan was trained by Canon as a mentor, coach and facilitator, and by Henley Business School in executive coaching. He’s skilled at working one-to-one and is a natural group facilitator. He also regularly presents to large audiences, including conferences in Europe and North America.