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New Study Highlights the Role of Unconscious Bias in the Hiring Process

Unconscious bias hiring study results

Earlier this summer, a team of economists at the University of Chicago and the University of California, Berkeley released the initial results of a wide-ranging hiring discrimination audit that included large US-based organizations.

Performed in partnership with the National Bureau of Economic Research, the study sent over 80,000 fake job applications for entry-level positions to 100 different companies. The applications used randomized data for work experience, age, and school background but carefully selected the names.

Similar pairs of resumes were selected to have a name that sounded either distinctively white or African-American or black. Names like John or Laura were paired with names such as Aliyah or DeAndre.

While the full study has yet to be released, the initial findings were troubling. On the whole, applicants with black-or African-American sounding names received fewer callbacks compared to those with white-sounding names. The numbers demonstrated that white applicants experienced a 9% increase in responses when compared to similar resumes.

One surprising aspect of the study is that the bias of the hiring process varied widely from company to company. In 20% of the companies, the gap between responses grew to nearly 19%. The takeaway from these variations is that the majority of systemic discrimination is happening at a smaller number of companies.

The Cost of Discrimination

While EEO lawsuits and settlements grab most of the headlines, the study highlighted the hidden costs of discrimination. After studying the data, the researchers found that the companies which discriminated were less profitable.

This is not surprising. Biases in the hiring process cause us to potentially miss the best applicants based on factors that are irrelevant to their potential job performance. The benefits of a diverse, highly qualified workforce should be more than enough reason to take the issue of hiring discrimination seriously.

Additionally, studies have shown that racially diverse companies are 35% more likely to have higher financial returns, and companies with high gender diversity are 15% more likely to outperform.

How Bias Creeps Into the Hiring Process

The Wording in Job Descriptions

Certain words or phrases can inadvertently alienate certain groups of people. An objective job description uses language that appeals to the broadest possible group of people. You can use an app like Textio to analyze the language in your job listings and compare it to millions of job postings. The goal of Textio is to suggest the optimal wording that will get the most (and best) qualified candidates without isolating any group.

Another option: use this web-based gender decoder to detect the “subtle linguistic gender-coding” that can discourage women from applying for certain jobs. The app was built based on the result of a research paper that found that certain words in job descriptions resulted in fewer women applicants. If you’re wondering, a few examples of these words are “independent,” “adventurous,” and “driven.”

Applicant’s Personal Details

You can’t unconsciously discriminate based on someone’s assumed age, ethnicity, or gender as easily if you can’t see their name or photo when you’re evaluating them as a job candidate. These kinds of details can be removed manually from resumes before they’re given to the person in charge of hiring. Still, there are also software programs that make it easier.

Blendoor, for example, has an “anonymization” feature that removes details like names and dates from resumes. There are also a few Chrome extensions that hide applicant names and photos from LinkedIn profiles and some other social media sites.

Unstructured Job Interviews

It helps curb unconscious bias if the interviewer sticks to a set of predetermined interview questions. As this Wall St. Journal article explains: “Interviewers naturally create a warmer or more casual climate for candidates they perceive as ‘in-group’ members—say, those who went to the same university or were in the same fraternity. This natural instinct to reach for common ground can advantage certain groups by making them feel at home. It also can unintentionally lead minority candidates or people who feel like outsiders to experience more stress.”

Addressing Hiring Bias at Your Organization

The best protections for avoiding legal claims and the loss of talent are having legal standards in place and building an inclusive company culture. But cultural changes don’t happen overnight. It requires serious, engaged senior leadership as well as the commitment of leaders and team members from all levels of the organization.

As ELI President Steve Paskoff stated, “This is not a simple task; it takes awareness, time, and narrow, workable objectives. A single, one-time dose of learning may raise awareness, and that’s important. But it won’t permanently change habits that are so deeply embedded in us and that many won’t recognize they have them [or something like that]

If you want to prioritize diversity in your organization and want proven expertise to create cultural change, contact us at ELI to learn more about our DEI learning solutions for organizations of all sizes.

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