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Understanding unconscious bias in recruitment

Updated: Nov 12, 2020

Most of us would like to think that we’re not biased most of the time. We consider ourselves to be objective, fair-minded individuals.

But, the truth is that all of us are influenced by our biases – both our conscious biases that we are aware of - and also our unconscious, hidden biases that we have operating at an unconscious level in our brains that can influence the decisions that we make about individuals.

In the case of recruitment, these biases can impact many aspects of the recruitment process such as how we create our job descriptions, how we screen CVs, how we decide who gets on a shortlist, how we interview/assess candidates and how we make decisions about whether or not they should proceed to the next stage.

How our brain processes information

In his book, “Strangers to Ourselves,” Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia noted that the brain can absorb about 11 million pieces of information a second, of which it can process about 40 consciously. The unconscious brain handles the rest.

Without our unconscious processes we wouldn’t be able to do lots of everyday things successfully. To process all of this information, our unconscious brain makes shortcuts. However these unconscious shortcuts our brain takes can lead us to make subjective judgements about people if we’re not careful – this is known as unconscious bias.

A popular definition of unconscious bias provided by Cornish and Jones (2013) defines unconscious bias as a bias that we are unaware of, and which happens outside of our control. It is a bias that happens automatically and is triggered by our brain making quick judgements and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences.

Unconscious bias “refers to a bias that we are unaware of, and which happens outside of our control.

It is a bias that happens automatically and is triggered by our brain making quick judgements and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences.”

These biases are important because, even though we may be unaware of them, they can have a significant impact on the decisions we make – and in particular in the people decisions that are made in organisations (i.e. who is recruited into organisations, who gets promoted in organisations and also who leaves organisations).

Understanding different biases

In recruitment there are many different kinds of bias that can affect our decision-making including:

Confirmatory Bias

This is when we create a hypothesis in our minds and look for ways to prove it. It is the innate tendency to seek out confirmation of our preconceived beliefs.

For example, when interviewing you may form a distinct opinion about a candidate based on a small piece of information such as the school or university they attended. At an unconscious level you may then look for information that confirms your original hypothesis. You may also ignore information that contradicts your initial hypothesis.

Halo or Horns Effect

The Halo or Horns effect are terms often used to describe specifically how confirmatory bias can manifest itself in interviews. The "halo" effect occurs when an interviewer allows one strong point about the candidate to overshadow or have an effect on everything else. For instance, knowing they used to work at a particular company might be looked upon favourably.

Everything the applicant says during the interview is seen in this light. ("Well, she left out an important part of the answer to that question, but, she must know it, she used to work at X company). The "horns" effect is just the opposite - allowing one weak point to influence everything else.


There are many ways that we can be primed about other people. We will receive second hand, third hand information from others and this can lead us to make certain judgments about people based on this information rather than making a decision based on the objective information available.

Often we put too much weight on information from others without really thinking about the circumstances under which that information was received. Could it be that the impression someone has of an individual was based on one interaction 5 years ago?


In social psychology, a stereotype is a thought that can be adopted about specific types of individuals or certain ways of doing things. These thoughts or beliefs may or may not accurately reflect reality.

We use our stereotypes to make quick assumptions about people when we meet someone for the first time from a particular social group. For example at an unconscious level we might think: “women with children will miss a lot of work”; “a male candidate will make a better leader than a female candidate.”

Mini-me bias

This refers to our unconscious tendency to favour those who remind us of ourselves. This can result in hiring managers or recruiters favouring an employee because they are similar to themselves rather than because they are the best person for the job.

Contrast Effect

The contrast effect is where we are influenced by the context or by the contrast with other individuals. For example if you are interviewing a number of candidates in a day and you interview three weak candidates in a row, you may think that the fourth candidate is better than they actually are due to the comparison with the three weak candidates. This is why it is important to assess candidates against competencies rather than compare with each other.

First Impressions

We are very quick to form first impressions of people and we tend to hold onto these first impressions and give them a lot of weight even when we receive subsequent information that contradicts our first impression. We can therefore be biased by the first impression that a candidate makes rather than looking at all the information that we have about the candidate.

Attribution error

This is one of the most common forms of bias in the recruitment process as it affects how we assess other people. When we do something well we tend to think it’s down to our own merit and personality. When we do something badly we tend to believe that our failing is down to external factors like other people who adversely affected us and prevented us from doing our best.

However, when it comes to other people we tend to think the opposite. If someone else has done something well we consider them lucky, and if they’ve done something badly we tend to think it’s due to their personality or bad behaviour.

We will downplay situational factors when explaining behaviour and over emphasise personal characteristics, for example “I know it’s been a bad sales environment but I think his poor performance was solely down to lack of effort.”

In-group bias

In-group bias, refers to a preference for one's in-group, i.e., a social group with which you associate yourself, over the out-group, i.e., a social group with which you don’t identify. Simply put, it refers to favouritism toward one's own group.

The concept is also known as in-group out-group bias. According to the in-group bias theory, such behaviour can be attributed to competition, wherein two groups vie for limited resources, or to circumstances wherein groups feel the need to prove their superiority.

In recruitment this bias can mean that, at an unconscious level, you may make decisions which favour people from your in-group over those in your out-group, e.g. viewing their CV more positively or glossing over negative parts of an interview.

This bias may also impact how you behave towards people – we have a tendency to use more micro-affirmations (small positive behaviours towards people such as nodding in agreement, maintaining eye contact) towards people in our in-group and more micro-aggressions (e.g. interrupting, not acknowledging the point someone’s made) towards people in our out-group.

If debiasing recruitment is key to your D&I strategies, RoleMapper can help. Why not get in touch for a demo and see how we can help drive inclusion at its core.

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