Fighting Hiring Bias

You were passed over yet again for that promotion. You weren’t even granted an interview, despite being an objectively strong fit. And now, much to the surprise of your co-workers, you were amongst the first pandemic layoffs.

Not all career slights are due to bias. Applicants might be misinformed, deluded, unlucky. But, bias does exist and it can have devastating effects on careers. ‘Too’ old or young. ‘Wrong’ race, religion, gender identity, orientation, physical abilities, weight, socio-economic background.

Some leaders with thinly veiled prejudices celebrate the uniformity of their teams when ‘PC’ ears aren’t listening. If company executives and boards are not genuinely committed to diversity, efforts to broaden will be weak and short-lived.

But, sometimes even employers with the best of intentions are unaware of the ways in which their implicit beliefs are skewing their hiring decisions. This new hire looks remarkably like the last one, and the one before that. Yet, homogenous organizations are ill-suited to serve a heterogenous world – their innovation can be stilted, their decision-making gaffes can lead outsiders to wonder: how did no one on the inside see to stop this?

Candidates who already face bias are now being battered by newsfeeds filled with the vicious killing of black people in the States, anti-Asian virus taunts,  LGBTQIA2S+ hate. This, while the job market roils under COVID. ‘With so many people battling for jobs,’ some wonder, ‘how likely am I to be chosen?’

To help us explore these complex issues of hiring bias, we interviewed two experts in the field.

First: Dr. Lee Ross – Stanford University Psychology Professor and Social Psychology pioneer who has shaped the fields of human inference, judgment and decision-making, both in and outside of academia.

In a 2013 interview with the New York Times, author Malcolm Gladwell referenced: The Person and The Situation, a book Ross wrote with his long-term collaborator Dr. Richard Nisbett. ‘If you read that book,’ Gladwell says, ‘you’ll see the template for the genre of books that “The Tipping Point” and “Blink” and “Outliers” belong to. That book changed my life.’

Next, we chatted with Drew Railton – Managing Partner, Western Canada for Caldwell Partners, a Canadian-owned Executive Search firm with offices across North America, Europe and Asia Pacific. Railton – twice nominated to Top 40 under 40 lists and active in supporting charities – has worked for more than 18 years recruiting senior executives and board directors.


Joaquín Torres-García. Ritmo de ciudad. 1918


How might bias narrow hiring decisions?

Confirmation Biases
When it comes to hiring, any of us can fall prey to confirmation biases as we look for candidate behaviours that match our preconceptions. Those who are anti-diversity will be particularly quick to see clear proof that Candidate X – you know, that one they didn’t want to interview in the first place – is all wrong.

The ‘Ideal’ Candidate
Even well-intentioned employers, says Drew Railton, can show “an unconscious bias to hire in their own image. I had a conversation earlier today with a CFO of a global multibillion-dollar company where they acknowledged that they have hired too many people on the team with backgrounds similar to their own. Good news for them is they have the self-awareness to realize this and can course correct with future hires.”

Dr. Lee Ross agrees: “What is my image of a good academic, or a hot prospect in my law firm, or a good engineer? The prototype you have is more likely going to be someone like yourself. You just say: who looks like a good bet?’”

Many employers don’t give enough thought to how they assemble their candidate short lists. “Even people who are sensitive to disadvantage can be utterly insensitive to advantage,” says Ross. “They look at people who are close at hand. What they are insensitive to is the pipeline or the channels that put some people close at hand and most others in the wilderness.”

Historical Job Structures
Atypical candidates can find themselves butting up against job elements that reflect more about the people for whom that type of job was initially designed versus what is actually required for job success. “Again and again,” Ross says, “we see a world of jobs that evolved responsive to the needs of men and the opportunities sought by men which, not coincidentally, don’t work so well for women.”

Bias-Magnifying Algorithms
The hope was that AI could help us overcome our hiring biases. But, researchers have discovered how easy it is for these bots to acquire our biases as they source and narrow candidate pools. Miranda Bogen writes in her 2019 Harvard Business Review article: All the Ways Hiring Algorithms Can Introduce Bias: ‘Algorithms introduce new risks of their own. They can replicate institutional and historical biases, amplifying disadvantages lurking in data points like university attendance or performance evaluation scores.’


Jacob Lawrence This is Harlem.1943


What can well-intentioned leaders do to ensure that they are not being biased in their hires and promotions?

Revisit Hiring Team Composition
It’s critically important that all those on the hiring team be genuinely open to diverse candidates. Otherwise, it’s all too easy for a naysayer to sway a group on what’s ‘wrong’ with a non-traditional applicant. Once assembled, the team might need guidance on how to develop non-biased selection processes, interview questions and equitable pay structures.

Look To The Power Positions
Is there true demographic diversity in your organization’s power positions and succession pipeline? Right now, protestors are asking companies to reveal how many of their executives and board members are Black, Indigenous, People of Colour. If your numbers are low, which qualified BIPOC candidates can you bring in now? And how many of those at the top of your organization are  LGBTQIA2S+? What can you do to develop a broader range of talent for the future? Which excellent, diverse employees can you bolster through stretch assignments and high-profile projects?

“If an individual has been successful and finds themselves in a leadership role,” Caldwell Partners’ Drew Railton emphasizes, “the unconscious bias can be towards someone who has had a similar career path.” Bring in new voices to consider hiring and promotion decisions.

Address Unnecessary Structural Biases
Ask yourself, Dr. Lee Ross adds: “Are there any kind of irrelevant features in the way I’ve set up my business that particularly disadvantage a particular class of people?”  If so, how can they be eradicated?

Lead with Fairness and Justice
Are you casting your net broadly from the start? As Ross says: “some practices that may work perfectly well, and may even guarantee good hires (because there are a lot of people who could do a good job) are nevertheless unfair to individuals who aren’t in the pipeline on which the employer reflexively relies, and perhaps more importantly are a barrier to a more just society and equal opportunity for upward mobility.”

“Even if hiring only people who are well recommended by folks we know and trust may work pretty well – at least in terms of avoiding ‘bad hires’ – it perpetuates under-representation of members of groups who are not in those privileged networks. Going outside such networks may be a bit risky in terms of individual decisions – but without some such ‘risk taking,’ the status quo of racial and/or gender inequality will not be remedied.”

Avoid Demographic Stereotyping
Take age, for example. Do you automatically assume that this 46 year old candidate is less energetic, tech-savvy or quick-learning than that 28 year old? People-probability is a risky business and you might be weeding out exceptional performers. There is great benefit, says Railton, in “diversity of thought.”

On the flip side, are you overlooking high potential young leaders? Clients can be skeptical, Railton says, about younger executive candidates who don’t seem to have “endured the hardships and earned the credibility. So, when we have a rising star it takes more time and points of calibration to build comfort level and then you almost always get that comment of will they be respected if/when we announce them in the role.”

Step back and ensure you’re not pigeon-holing diverse candidates. Do you assume if they excel in Skill A, they couldn’t possibly also excel in Skills B through G?

Focus Training
‘We actually see quite a few search committees,” says Railton, “doing unconscious bias training at the beginning of the search just to bring awareness to this.”

Consider Access
How many gateways to opportunity – e.g. apprenticeships or internships that help students get in the best undergraduate programs – are only financially feasible for people or families of means? “Is the preference,” Ross asks, “given to candidates with past experience in the specific work domain shutting out candidates from diverse backgrounds who could easily acquire any required insider knowledge in the first weeks or months of the job?”


Julie Mehretu. Stadia II. 2004. Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh. © Julie Mehretu


Build A Respectful Hiring Process
Is there anything about your hiring process – from resume solicitation to follow-up with interviewees – that is alienating diverse candidates? Word travels fast, for instance, about organizations who boast diversity and social ethics as a central mission then ghost candidates after a series of interviews. “At least let me know I’m out of the running.”

Make sure you’re not, consciously or unconsciously, asking diverse candidates to leap through more hiring hoops than non-diverse candidates. And don’t assume if these candidates have had some career success to date that ‘they don’t count’, that they have not battled barriers each step along the way.

Audit Your Algorithms
If organizations are going to use hiring algorithms, they need to be under the watch of critical human eyes. Employers also need to remember that even the most effective algorithms cannot assess high potential diverse workers who, because of narrow nets and inhospitable hiring processes, have not made it into the candidate pool.

In their HBR Article Hiring Algorithms Are Not Neutral, authors Gideon Mann and Cathy O’Neil suggest organizations can fight algorithmic bias by: a) assigning a team to audit algorithm results, b) performing random spot-checks on candidates chosen and not chosen by the algorithm and comparing results to an in-depth, anti-bias focused human review, c) manually reviewing the correlations the machine has learned and getting rid of those that are biased, e.g.: against certain names, extracurriculars or graduation dates.

Balance Hiring Voices
Even productive, diversity-committed search team members can hijack discussions. “You see scenarios,” says Railton, “where an outspoken member of a search committee may have strong views, positive or negative, on a particular candidate.  They can sway others’ opinions on the committee.”

Actively Consider Outliers
“Hiring committees are particularly prone to bias,” says Lee Ross, “because they are likely to hire the individual who seems safest rather than choosing someone who doesn’t fit the mold but who may bring something new and important to the organization.”

Railton and his recruitment team will build continuums of candidates. “Here are some exceptional candidates,” they’ll tell clients, “who may be outside the originally expressed parameters but have extreme value.”

Make The Rules for Success Concrete and Clear
Dr. Ross recalls work he has done with his Stanford colleague – and renowned psychologist – Dr. Claude Steele, pioneer of research on Stereotype Threat, i.e. the damaging effects that the threat of being stereotyped can have on minority performance. How to open the doors to those who might otherwise be excluded?

“Claude has said that it is important to demystify the path to success,” Ross explains. “Doubts and fears experienced by all who take on a new task or enter a new institution – but especially in minority group members who see few people like themselves in that new setting – are eased when expectations and necessary steps to achieve success are made explicit.”

Think Twice about Retention Rates
Low retention rates should be a concern for any organization. But, Ross adds, if every new student in your PhD program or every new hire in your company fits in easily, and none stumble along the way, perhaps you’re not taking enough chances. Unblemished records with regards to minority recruitment and hiring can be a sign that you are creaming off the small number of minority group members who otherwise look just like members of the majority.”


Tsuroko Yamazaki. Work. 1967


What can candidates do to battle subtle biases that may be narrowing their career options?

In a sensible world, the onus for battling bias would not fall on its targets. In the real world, ‘atypical’ candidates need to be vigilant and proactive if they want to attain traditional jobs, or even investors for their own businesses. With COVID job losses and dwindling funds, many need new jobs now.

Seek Emotional Support From Trusted Others
Researchers have long identified the stress and anxiety that come from being the recipient of micro-aggressions and subtle, unprovable discrimination. “Am I being rejected for that promotion because of my race, my weight, my gender identity or because of some undiscussed element in my job performance?”

This stress will only be magnified given the emotional vulnerability of being caught in a racial reckoning, a pandemic, and surging political polarization. Right now, black job candidates might be feeling emotionally exhausted, conspicuous, reflective. Asian candidates might be reeling from coronavirus-related discrimination.  LGBTQIA2S+ candidates might be drained by loud voices and decision-making bodies questioning their very existence. It is important for all those affected – even in the midst of a driving job search – to prioritize self-care and, before feeling overwhelmed, to seek social or professional support.

Consider Advocacy
Some who face bias find strength in working with social groups or non-profits to fight structural inequities in jobs and workplaces.

Pay Heed to Red Flags
If you’re already feeling strongly disrespected in the interview process, if your gut is telling you that, say, you’re a ‘token’ hire being assigned to a reluctant boss, this job may not be worth the toll it will take on you.

Don’t Stop for the Coronavirus
If you’re in the job market and feeling healthy, now is a good time to start looking for new work. “No one likes looking for a job; it’s not fun,” says Railton. “Putting yourself out there, you feel vulnerable. But, I think there’s a trap that people can fall into during lockdown. They sit back and think there’s nothing going on, that the world has stopped. That’s not true. The world has slowed down. But, I personally have made 5 or 6 offers in the last two months.”

Don’t Wait To Be The Perfect Candidate
Say there’s a good job out there that you’d like to have, but you’re under-qualified. What would you do? Ross describes research where “women say ‘I’d get the qualifications.’ Men say: ‘I’d just take the job and I’d fake it until I’ve learned how to do it.”

Most of the time, Ross continues, “the so-called experts, the people who are most confident, don’t really have it all together, they don’t have all the answers. They’re struggling; they’re doing the best they can. Most of the things you have to know to succeed in the job you get not from taking a lot of courses, but from what you discover after you get your foot in the door, get some first-hand experience, and observe how the organization functions.”

Actively Seek Broader Experience
Identify serious skill gaps and, if feasible, fill them in. “In my world,” says Railton, “designations and credentials are helpful, but nothing replaces experience.”

“I see time and time again,” Ross adds, “older people saying I want a job where they make use of my skills and experience. Lots of jobs don’t want to make use of your skills and experience. They want you to have new skills and experience.”

“Take chances with your career,” says Railton. “Don’t shy away from the complicated projects; be willing to jump in. Remember when a mess is presented to you, it is far easier to look good by solving it than to sit on the sidelines and avoid it.”

Seek Out Mentors and Insider Savvy
Read outside of your area of expertise to gain a broader perspective, Ross and Railton agree. Look for mentors in and outside of your industry. Right now, as biases are being unmasked, some industry leaders on social media are offering their time and network support to BIPOC and others who might have fallen prey to bias. Ask questions; learn the language of the people with whom you want to be working.

Come in with Confidence
Despite the real doubts and barriers that come as you face unfair bias, leaders are more likely to hire someone who seems confident as well as competent. “Focus on what you’ve done,” says Railton. “Put your best foot forward and let your actions speak for themselves.”


Written By Elizabeth Newton, Ph.D; R.Psych
Workplace Psychologist
June 2020

Header Image. Georgia O’Keefe. Nature Forms – Gaspé. 1932


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Elizabeth Newton

Elizabeth Newton