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Your DE&I Journey – HR’s Role in Eliminating Bias in the Hiring Process

As an HR leader, you promote, guard, and protect corporate culture for your organization. When organizations strive to become more inclusive, the HR function has the responsibility of identifying and addressing the expressed and/or implicit cultural norms and what is missing in organizations.


Industry norms vary, organization norms vary, but one thing stays the same. The HR function has a unique opportunity and responsibility to come alongside their peers and leaders to build a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion within their companies.


When it comes to building culture, there is truth in the old adage that says, “If you keep doing what you have always done, you will keep getting what you have always gotten.” The starting point for a different – and we would say, better – DE&I outcome starts with understanding and eliminating bias in the hiring process.


In 1964, the Civil Rights Act outlawed racial and gender discrimination. Yet, more than 50 years later, women and minorities are under-represented in many organizations, particularly in high-ranking, high-paid positions. Bias is the reason for that situation in many organizations.


Explicit bias exists when someone is aware of their attitudes and their prejudices. Implicit bias occurs below the level of conscious processing in the brain regions where snap judgments and automatic categorizations happen in nano-seconds.


Common biases that affect hiring include:

  • Affinity Bias: Something in common with a candidate, like graduating from a specific college, causes them to be viewed favorably
  • Confirmation Bias: After making a snap judgment, people look for evidence to confirm the judgment is correct
  • Contrast Bias: Instead of judging a candidate on their own merits, they are compared, often on a single hiring dimension, to another candidate and found wanting
  • Expectation Bias: A belief about a situation limits options even when there is no evidence to support the view. (For example, a manager who believes no one on the team will listen to a woman/African American/Hispanic American/Muslim/Jew/LGBT manager in a specific department.)
  • Halo/Horn Bias: Someone is either a good or bad candidate, based on superficial information that has no relation to requirements for a job


Bias is normal for everyone. In the HBR article, “3 Ways to Make Less Biased Decisions,” diversity consultant Howard J. Ross writes, “First, by realizing and accepting that we all have bias, we can learn to watch for it in ourselves and help others who work with us do the same.”


And as HR leaders, we can also strive to design processes eliminating bias while supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion goals.


Three Areas Where Implicit Bias Impacts Hiring Processes

Therese Macon, Ph.D., and Stephanie Merritt, Ph.D., wrote, “Actions Speak Too: Uncovering Possible Implicit and Explicit Discrimination in the Employment Interview Process,” published in the International Review of Industrial and Organizational Psychology.  Using Dipboye and Macan’s (1988) interview process model, they identified where biases may impact the interview process.

  • Pre-interview stage
  • Interview stage
  • Post-interview stage


During the pre-interview stage, bias can creep in during résumé screening and through pre-interview expectations that promote stereotyping. During the interview stage, both behavioral and perceptual processes can introduce bias. Behaviors named by Macon and Merritt include avoidance or distancing, assimilation, and self-fulfilling prophecies. Perceptions named include interpretation of ambiguous information, what is given attention and remembered, and the attributions for information. During the post-interview stage, bias can be introduced when standards shift and when status characteristics or constructed criteria affect decisions.


Get Your Organization Headed in the Right Direction

As part of Blue Rock’s new client onboarding process, we deep-dive into organizational goals. Sometimes those conversations uncover frustrated CEOs and HR leaders who want to build a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion but feel like their recruitment and hiring process does not hit the mark.

When that is the case, we draw upon personal experience and research to recommend five best practices.


  1. Set Organizational DE&I Goals

Alone, there is only so much an HR leader can do to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in an organization. This is especially true when the majority of your colleagues come from groups holding traditional advantages. If the organization as a whole sets diversity goals, you are no longer alone. Diversity is no longer an HR initiative. It is a corporate goal backed by leadership at all levels.


  1. Educate to Open Minds and Motivate Change

Multiple studies have shown a positive correlation between diversity and above-average profitability. Forbes reported on findings from one study conducted by McKinsey and Company, stating, “Companies with more culturally and ethnically diverse executive teams were 33% more likely to see better-than-average profits.”

Thirty-three percent better-than-average profits is an attention-getter. It opens the door to discussion and education, but real – and lasting – change only comes about when teammates are educated enough to understand the subtle forces of bias and combat them during hiring.


  1. Changing Job Descriptions Can Expand the Candidate Pool

Job listings attract and repel candidates because descriptive language sends subtle signals about company culture. Research conducted by professors at Duke University and the University of Waterloo studied the impact of language on candidate pools and concluded:

  • Male-dominated jobs tend to employ more masculine wording in their recruitment materials, and wording differences may not be entirely innocuous
  • Masculine wording led people to predict that there are relatively more men within the relevant occupation
  • As a result, positions studied appealed to fewer women, supporting institutional-level biases that maintain gender inequality

Words are powerful, and they communicate more than a laundry list of required skills. If you do not see enough diversity among candidates, consider re-writing your job postings and job descriptions.


  1. Level the Playing Field with Blind Resume Reviews

One of the landmark studies demonstrating bias in hiring processes was conducted by researchers at MIT and the University of Chicago. They demonstrated having a name that people perceive as “black” reduced the chance of getting an interview.


This sobering evidence gives pause to every HR leader vested in fair processes. Going blind for application and résumé review is a better starting point for diversity, equity, and inclusion.


  1. Standardize Interviews

Dr. Iris Bohnet has her Ph.D. in economics and teaches at Harvard. In her Harvard Business Review article, “How to Take the Bias Out of Interviews,” she makes a compelling case for structured interviews. She says, “The evidence against unstructured interviews should make any hiring manager pause. These interviews should not be your evaluation tool of choice; they are fraught with bias and irrelevant information.”


In her article, Bohnet presents evidence from a study conducted by sociologist Lauren Rivera, Ph.D. When Dr. Rivera interviewed bankers, lawyers, and consultants, they commonly looked for someone like themselves in interviews. 


Look at your interviewing process and determine how if improving it would increase candidate diversity. If you make standardization recommendations to teammates, be prepared for pushback from hiring decision-makers. To make your case, sharing the article from Dr. Bohnet could work as part of your education initiative.


Last Thoughts

Dr. Pamela Newkirk is a journalist, professor, and author of Diversity Inc.: The Failed Promise of Billion-Dollar Business. In an article written for Strategy + Business, she reported, “Racial and ethnic minorities make up 38.8 percent of the population of the U.S. and a nearly equivalent share of its workforce. But minorities represent only 17 percent of full-time university professors and 16.6 percent of newsroom journalists. They are only 4.5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and 16 percent of Fortune 500 boardroom directors. They are 9 percent of law firm partners; 16 percent of museum curators, conservators, educators, and leaders; 13 percent of film directors; and 6 percent of the voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.”8


These sobering numbers offer proof that there is still much work to be done to eliminate bias. To eliminate bias often requires changing an organization’s culture. That is never an easy task for HR leaders. As Culture/Change Champion, it is through your work that employees’ lives, organizational culture, and business performance improve.


By Ruben Moreno


About the Author

After a 25-year career in Corporate Human Resources and HR Executive Search, Ruben Moreno and his two partners co-founded Blue Rock Search based on a simple but ambitious vision of creating a firm that would “Change Lives and Organizations One Relationship at a Time.”  Ruben leads the Blue Rock HR Executive Search practice specializing in the identification, assessment, recruitment, and onboarding of Chief HR Officers and Chief Diversity Officers and their respective teams — inclusive of leaders in Talent Acquisition, Total Rewards, HRBP’s, Learning & OD, HR Technology, HR Operations, and HR Analytics. Ruben has helped place hundreds of HR Executives and built deep relationships within the CHRO community across multiple industry verticals. His clients consider him a trusted partner who takes the time to understand their business and add value beyond executive search.

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