I hired hundreds of contractors for clients based on my gut feeling. I had experience, and instinctively had a feel for how someone might fit into a particular client’s environment. But as fair as I felt I was during my initial screening of candidates, bias would naturally creep in. My own unavoidable criteria, and my understanding of what the client did or did not want; not based on data but on a collection of subjective observations.

David Savage, Give Your Gut a Break, www.theglobalrecruiter.com/digital-magazine

While we’d like to believe that our “gut feeling” is guided by experience and good sense, evidence suggests that it just isn’t so. Studies in psychology over the past decade have shown clearly that our mind contains implicit stereotypes and attitudes that affect our perceptions. The original term for this was “implicit bias,” and more recently it has come to be called unconscious bias.

One important characteristic of unconscious bias is that we don’t hold it as opinion or perception, but as fact. A second characteristic is that unconscious bias is not affected by learning or knowledge – our minds are absolutely capable of holding two conflicting beliefs – one unconscious and the other learned. While learning may suppress taking direct actions on our biases, they come out in our actions – who we socialize with, in-jokes, microaggressions, and the like.

Finally, it’s important to realize that unconscious bias is not something we chose – it is societally conditioned from birth. The Sufi mystics say that there are three great mysteries: air to the bird, water to the fish, and human beings to themselves. Unconscious bias is the water in which we swim. As we noted in a previous blog, even in a blind resume scenario with highly educated, seemingly unbiased readers, bias will show up.

So how do you eliminate bias from the recruiting/hiring process? You don’t – bias is inevitable – but you can control bias by taking steps such as the following:

  • Don’t wonder if you have bias – assume you do. Instead, learn as much as you can about bias in general and your personal biases in particular. Take the Harvard Implicit Associations Tests. In fact take several – choose race, gender, and other categories. Get to know your bias profile and get curious about where it came from. Notice when biased thoughts and feelings come up and notice the assumptions on which they’re based.
  • Challenge your assumptions and notice how biases like confirmation bias operate.
  • Become aware of your double standards – does the same behavior that you consider assertive in a man come across as bossy or aggressive in a woman?
  • Use team interviewing and select your team for enough variance in biases that they cancel each other out.

A recruiting/hiring process that controls for bias may take a bit longer or add a couple of steps, but it will result in greater diversity and the opportunity to hire “hidden gems” that companies that do not pay attention to bias have overlooked.


BrainWorks is a prominent boutique executive search firm offering a 29-year track record of successfully sourcing and placing top talent. By harnessing proven strategies, collaborating with stakeholders, and leveraging a diverse and talented candidate network, BrainWorks helps businesses find, attract, and ultimately hire talented professionals that create differentiated results. To learn more about how Brainworks can help you, contact us.

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