How much is unconscious bias’ really ruining your chances of landing the job?

In a 2011 paper by researchers at the Columbia Business School, it was discovered that the chances of a prisoner receiving parole were, in effect, directly related to how hungry the judge hearing their case was.

At the beginning of a morning hearing, with the judges having just eaten, prisoners had a 65% chance of a successful appeal. This figure declined steadily throughout the session until it hit near enough zero just before lunch, with the cycle repeating when the judges were once again well-fed.

This example of unconscious bias is something we’ve no doubt all experienced, but perhaps don’t pay as much attention to as we should.

When hunger strikes …

Sure, it’s not uncommon for people to say they don’t want to be the last in a long line of interviewees, knowing the hiring manager might be more interested in what’s for dinner than how you can demonstrate a key competency.

But how many other times could unconscious bias play a role in you not getting an interview or, worse, a job? And what can recruiters do as an industry to try to eliminate, or at least minimise, it?

Types of bias

Hunger is just one of many examples that can affect decision making – consider some of these:

  • Affinity – ‘that person also loves craft beer, they must be great!’
  • Halo effect – ‘that person went to Oxford, they must be great!’
  • Familiarity – ‘that person is just like me, they must be great!’
  • Anchoring – ‘that person is paid bucket loads, they must be great!’ (alternatively, ‘that person is paid pittance, they must be rubbish.’).

I could go on and on (check out the Wikipedia page on ‘Cognitive Bias’ for an easy introduction).

The question is, what responsibility do we as recruiters have, to be as aware as we can of these biases, and what can you as a professional do to try and minimise the risk of a hiring manager succumbing?

How blank is too blank?

One tactic that several businesses have trialled is removing information from CVs and applications.

Vodafone has removed gender from CVs to test whether gender bias was having an effect on the lack of women being hired into tech roles.

Ernst & Young no longer requires graduate applicants to include any educational details on their CVs for similar reasons.

A northern tech company, Bytemark, have had a completely anonymous application system since about 2015, but they openly admit there is still work to be done.

It’s also been regularly shown that ethnicity and age can play a big part in applications being considered.

At Vertical Advantage, we encourage people who are interested in joining our business to get in touch without sending a CV, and are more than happy to interview based on an email or phone introduction only.

As an industry, I feel it’s our duty to continually challenge ourselves to avoid falling into traps and peddling lazy stereotypes, regardless of when we last had a decent meal.

Recruit Smarter is an Australian initiative targeted at doing exactly that – removing unconscious bias wherever possible. I’d love to see more being done in the UK with this goal in mind.

If you’re aware of bias, what do you do to improve your chances?

Many people are aware of unconscious bias, so I’d love to hear any thoughts on how you may approach this as a candidate or even as a hiring manager.


Andy Davies

Associate Director – eCommerce, Digital, Marketing & Sales

More Articles from Andy