The Battle Against Unconscious Hiring Bias

are we winning the fight against unconscious bias

Since its inception, Silicon Valley has been the kingdom of the white male.

In the last few years, however, a string of executive hires, tasked with the job of eliminating hiring biases, have made a microscopic dent in this rock-hard reality.

Last year, Airbnb hired David J. King III — their first director of diversity and belonging.

According to King, black Airbnb customers globally are 50% less likely to be accepted by a host. And their workforce demographics aren’t looking much better:

  • 74% male in senior management and technical positions, with only
  • 5% of positions across the company filled by underrepresented minority groups.

Clearly, he has his work cut out for him.

The Issue Isn’t A Silicon Valley Phenomenon 

It’s endemic to the corporate world.

On the one hand, we have feel-good propaganda like Fortune’s list of best workplaces for diversity.

On the other hand, a recent study with minority job seekers in America exposes that companies who tout their diversity programs have identical applicant success rates to those that don’t.

It also revealed that white, Asian or Hispanic hiring managers are 50% less likely to interview a black candidate than a black hiring manager.

No surprise then that the trend of resume “whitening” is alive and well there.

And It’s Spreading Globally 

From the minority candidate perspective, it goes down like this:

  • Your name sounds ethnic. Such as Mohammed, Ming or Tahani. So you change it into an initial on your resume. Or into “Joe” or “May”. You could be from anywhere.
  • You belong to an ethnic organisation, or attended a university that a white, middle-class American hiring manager might find … difficult to relate to. You take it off your resume even though it boosts your candidate viability for the role.
  • You’re passionate about a cause that (you guessed it) a white hiring manager might find .. difficult to relate to. You take it off your resume even though you want your next employer to value who you are and what you believe.
  • You hope that if you can make it past this first screening, you can tell your true career story in person. Fingers crossed.

(A sidenote – if you’re unsure whether you should include your date of birth, race, religion or photograph on your resume, read this post).

Goodbye Diversity 

Hello potential discrimination.

Now let’s look at it from the hiring manager perspective — which many of you are.

The truth is that the act of hiring is inherently biased. Stay with me here.

Humans are wired to have likes and dislikes. Think of your own preferences for a colleague or direct report.

Maybe you like people who bring humour to the workplace, so you surround yourself with those who sport a dry wit.

Or, you like a fast-paced environment that is all business, all the time. So you seek out team members who mirror your intensity.

You may not even realise you’re doing it.

It’s Called Unconscious Hiring Bias

Meaning, even if your biases are consciously suppressed they will still emerge from the unconscious mind. Those of you with an HR background may recognise the term.

Madan Pillutla, a Professor of Organizational Behaviour at London Business School, calls out these three unconscious hiring biases as the most prevalent. And the most dangerous.

1. We Gravitate To People Like Us

Or, in psychological terms, it’s known as the similarity-attraction hypothesis. Pillutla claims that people with a decent level of self-esteem are satisfied with their personalities.

So when they see their qualities reflected in someone else, they tend to like that person, too. Keep it up and pretty soon your organisation is ruled by group think. Which means innovation will be stifled and growth hindered.

2. We Use Stereotypes To Judge People’s Abilities

For example, a white hiring manager might assume that an Asian or Indian is better at math than a white candidate.

But while it’s possible to unlearn ethnic biases, Pillutla feels that stereotypes about gender are harder to reverse.

Iris Bohnet, director of the Women and Public Policy Program at the Harvard Kennedy agrees:

“If we don’t see male kindergarten teachers or female engineers we don’t naturally associate women and men with those jobs, and we apply different standards.”

3. We Distrust Anyone Who Is a Perceived Threat to Our Status

Pillutla recently released some of the first research on this topic. A less-secure leader in a highly competitive culture may hesitate to hire someone who’s smarter than they are, or who could outperform them.

Case in point: many orchestras now practice “blind” auditions where the musicians play behind a screen, so the hiring managers don’t know what the candidates look like. As a result, more female musicians are employed.

How to Stop Unconscious Hiring Bias? 

Want to stop the problem before it starts? Here are a few tips:

1. Look for Talent In New Places

Not to harp on Silicon Valley again, but they are notoriously addicted to recruiting from Stanford.


Hmm, well, because many of the Valley’s founders graduated from Stanford. It’s a trend that sends a message to qualified outsiders from other universities — or other countries — that they shouldn’t even bother to apply.

Don’t make the same mistake by keeping your talent search too local.

2. Evaluate Every Resume the Same Way

Again, not to harp, but the study we cited earlier found that white candidates receive 50% more callbacks for interviews than minority candidates with the exact same resume — only the names were different.

Ask your in-house recruiter to strip out all names and photos before you review all and any resumes so your biases don’t pop up. And so that your prospects aren’t tempted to whiten.

3. Catch Yourself On the “Culture Fit” Cop Out

We’ve all been there. You feel like someone you’ve interviewed isn’t a good “fit” for your culture, yet you can’t quite put your finger on it.

Stop letting yourself off the hook.

Force yourself to articulate the issue. If you can’t explain it in rational terms, chances are your biases are creeping in.

And If You’re a Candidate?

Now that we’ve heard both sides of the story, I’ll share a few final thoughts for candidates.

If you are not a Tom, Dick, Harry or Mary, you have to work harder to tell your story in a compelling way to even get your resume noticed.

My advice? Think twice before you whiten your resume. Fight back with your personal brand instead.

Here’s how:

1. Hone Your Communication Skills

Both in speech and in writing tell your story clearly, articulately, succinctly and powerfully. This can be especially challenging if English isn’t your first language.

Regardless, train yourself to avoid public speaking weaknesses such as “um”, “okay” and “like.”

They only serve to dilute your message and diminish your brand. Consider your rhythm and cadence. Give yourself time to pause, breathe and think.

2. Communicate Your Value?

Honing your skills is just the point of entry. Knowing what your unique value proposition is the golden key that will garner you a seat at the table.

What can you offer the organisation you’re approaching that no one else can? Why, and how? Write it out for yourself. Know it, love it, memorise it.

Make sure it’s believable and credible.

Refuse to use discrimination – including unconscious hiring biases – as an excuse to give up on your dreams. And don’t bother interviewing with anyone who wants you to be someone you’re not.

You’re too good for that. Or you wouldn’t be reading this post.

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Irene McConell (née Kotov)

Irene McConnell (nee Kotov) has 10 years of HR and Recruitment experience, having worked in HR for Louis Vuitton and Caltex. She is also the founder of Arielle Careers, a personal branding agency which specialises in LinkedIn profile optimisation, resume writing and online presence creation. You can connect with her via Google+

Reader Interactions


  1. Steven says

    This is an interesting topic to flesh out.

    While the Silicon Valley may be the “kingdom of the white male” I do find it refreshing that their upper echelons are being successfully infiltrated by people from ethnic backgrounds. Sundar Pichai is now at the helm of Alphabet while Satya Nadella heads up Microsoft.

    Their appointments seem normal these days, however, 10 years ago they would have certainly raised some eyebrows.

  2. Mark de Leeuw says

    Thanks for sharing this article, Irene. I agree with you, subconscious biases are a real threat to the hiring process. In general, the hiring process is hugely influenced by biases and fallacies. The challenge for recruiters and hiring managers is to recognise these problems and actively fight them. This checklist can be a great resource to find out where your hiring process might be compromised:


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