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4 Ways To Avoid Unconscious Bias When Shortlisting Candidates

4 Ways To Avoid Unconscious Bias When Shortlisting Candidates

Learn how to prevent unconscious bias from disrupting the shortlisting process and ensure that you’re recruiting the best Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths talent. 

Shortlisting candidates is a key stage of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths) hiring process, helping you to narrow down your search and identify the strongest applicants for the job. 

But when you’re pulling together a candidate shortlist, it’s crucial to remember the potential for unconscious bias. 

Unconscious bias can easily creep into the hiring process, causing employers to make ill-informed and unfair decisions - and when you’re looking to find the perfect talent for your business, you can’t afford to dismiss anyone who might fit the bill. 

In this post, we’ll outline how you can identify and prevent unconscious bias to successfully shortlist candidates and discover outstanding hires for your business. 

What is unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias (also known as implicit bias) describes prejudices and stereotypes we may hold about particular groups of people that we don’t consciously register. 

You’ll find unconscious bias taking many forms, often including biases around age, ethnicity, and gender.

These biases are particularly dangerous because although we all hold them, we’re often totally unaware of their existence. Our subconscious perceptions of certain groups are shaped through the language we hear and the media we consume, which all combines to create unconscious thoughts, expectations, and assumptions. 

Issues rooted in unconscious bias are common in every industry, and STEM is no exception. 

A US field experiment on Labor Market Discrimination found that ‘resumes with Caucasian sounding names like Emily Walsh or Greg Baker were 50% more likely to get a call-back than the identical resume with an African American sounding name.’ 

Decisions influenced by unconscious bias aren’t just extremely unfair and discriminatory, but they can also prevent businesses from hiring the most promising candidates.

It’s this ‘unconscious’ aspect that you’ll need to address during the shortlisting process. These biases can sneak into your hiring decisions and sway your opinions, which it’s why it’s critical to eliminate unconscious bias from the process. 

How to avoid unconscious bias during shortlisting 

1. Face your assumptions head-on 

Nobody likes to think that they’re holding unfair biases or prejudices, but the truth is that everyone suffers from unconscious bias in some capacity. As an employer, the best thing you can do is confront this fact and proactively combat biases. 

Always think carefully about your first impressions during interviewing and shortlisting. 

Ask yourself why you might be perceiving a candidate in a certain way. Do you feel immediately enthusiastic about some individuals but less optimistic about others? 

By interrogating your initial opinions and considering where unconscious bias may be emerging, you can prevent yourself from making rash decisions. You might also consider using online tools (such as the Project Implicit test) to help you clarify and confront your own levels of unconscious bias. 

2. Build a diverse hiring team 

One of the best ways to tackle implicit bias is to set up a diverse hiring team. 

By gathering opinions from employees with different ages, genders, experience levels, and ethnic backgrounds, you can prevent one type of unconscious bias from dominating the entire shortlisting process. 

Bringing diverse perspectives into a shortlisting discussion will help you to achieve fairer outcomes. Your hiring staff can exchange ideas and share opinions, meaning potential biases won’t go unchecked when candidates are being shortlisted. 

The more balanced your team is, the more likely you are to filter out the bias and make objective decisions when selecting potential hires. 

3. Invest in education for staff members

Removing unconscious bias is an ongoing effort, and investing in education for your staff is key to long-term success in this department. 

External courses can be incredibly useful for combating unconscious bias, particularly for staff directly involved with shortlisting and hiring decisions. 

Employees can be trained to identify their own potential biases and prevent them from influencing the shortlisting process. When your hiring staff are educated about the impact of implicit bias, you can rely on them to make better decisions when it comes to selecting the best candidates for the job. 

According to Sally Spicer (Head of ED&I at Matchtech):

“Unconscious bias is something we all have; it is inbuilt in us from an early age, and it takes time and practice to pause and unlearn some of our creature habits. If you want to create sustainable change and open your door to underrepresented communities of great talent, education and training is absolutely critical. 

By helping your hiring community understand this complex topic and uncover their own biases, you can inspire them to take action to address it.”

While it can be tempting to frame unconscious bias training as a side project, it should be a central focus for STEM businesses looking to recruit fresh talent.

4. Set up a standardised process - and trust the results 

Setting up an equitable shortlisting process is key. Apply the same standards to all potential candidates, and make sure you don’t subconsciously move the goalposts based on biases.

One way of doing this could be to introduce ‘blind hiring’ to your shortlisting process. 

Blind hiring involves removing all indicators of a person’s protected characteristics (i.e. age, gender, background) from a CV, so that you focus exclusively on their relevant skills and experience.

(However, blind hiring is only effective if your company is making an active effort to attract a diverse range of applicants! You also need to ensure that new hires will be joining an inclusive work environment if they get the job.)

These types of shortlisting techniques encourage you to concentrate on what the facts are telling you, rather than allowing preconceived assumptions to cloud your judgement. 

If someone has the requisite skills for a role and seems like a strong company fit, don’t allow unconscious bias to get in the way of a brilliant new STEM hire. 

The benefits of removing unconscious bias from the hiring process

Eliminating implicit bias isn’t just the right thing to do to ensure a fairer shortlisting process. It will also offer significant benefits for your business in the long run. 

According to research conducted by McKinsey & Company, ‘companies with more than 30% women executives were more likely to outperform companies where this ranged from 10% to 30%’ in terms of financial performance. 

Similar results were also uncovered when it came to ethnic and cultural diversity:

‘In 2019, top-quartile companies outperformed those in the fourth one by 36 percent in profitability…As we have previously found, the likelihood of outperformance continues to be higher for diversity in ethnicity than for gender.’ 

There are many ways to combat unconscious bias and encourage diversity, from formal training that educates your staff to online tools like Gender Decoder that analyse job postings for problematic language. 

Working to remove unconscious bias from your hiring process will allow you to build a more diverse, more inclusive, and more effective workforce. Diversity at every level of your company, from junior hires to senior leadership, will help your business to thrive. 

Unconscious bias can be hugely disruptive during the shortlisting stage - but if you remain vigilant and follow these tips, you’ll give yourself the best chance of recruiting elite STEM talent that elevates your business. 

At Matchtech, we help clients to connect with highly skilled candidates, avoid potential biases, and nurture diverse teams. If you’d like to learn more about enhancing your recruitment strategy, click here to get in touch.


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