How we are beating unconscious bias and you can, too


Unconscious bias could be stifling not only your organisation's diversity but its innovation. Here are some tips.

Why did you make the last decision you made? Was it because it was the logical conclusion or the most efficient response, or because experience tells you it’s what works? Many different factors go into every decision we make, including – unfortunately – something called “unconscious bias”.

What is unconscious bias?

According to a definition from Warwick University, unconscious bias refers to “a bias we are unaware of. It is a bias that happens automatically and is triggered by our brain making quick judgements and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences.”

Unconscious bias is, as you can imagine, one of those phenomena that can have a real effect in the recruitment industry. Studies show that we are naturally biased towards people who are better looking, whom we have something in common with (perhaps you went to the same university or come from the same suburb), or who are in some way similar to ourselves (perhaps the same age, race, gender or sexuality). We can also unconsciously be biased in favour of someone who has one great thing about them that we like (maybe they’ve appeared on your favourite reality TV show), or be biased against someone who has one black mark against their name (perhaps they’ve spent time in prison).

In recruitment there’s also a form of unconscious bias that occurs when we’re reading dozens of CVs that all look pretty much the same. When one stands out, for whatever reason, we can either favour it or dismiss it based on that one thing – when in fact what’s important are skills and experience listed on the CV.

Discrimination in recruitment

According to MPi Business Services Consultant Paula MacKenzie, when questioned, a decision-maker will often “justify” these biases by talking about “a cultural fit” with the existing team. But there is growing recognition of discrimination and emphasis on promoting diversity in the workplace.

Unconscious bias is something for which recruiters must always be on the lookout, explains MPi Senior Consultant for Candidate Services and HR Consulting Gail Rogers.

“Being self-aware is as important as having a good system and process to follow,” she said, giving the example of affinity bias. Affinity bias is when we are most comfortable with people who remind us of ourselves.

“I noticed this several years ago when interviewing candidates who came from my hometown, worked at a site I had, or knew an old manager,” she said. “While not entirely foolproof, I added this to my mental checklist. The flip side of this is it is a practice many interviewers have used to build rapport with applicants to help them feel less nervous in an interview.”

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A lack of diversity can have detrimental effects

Rogers warned that bias can have a detrimental impact on the performance of the team a candidate is recruited into.

“Always recruiting people with similar characteristics, social standings, age, education and so on leads to a less diverse team and then the team misses out on the benefits of diversity,” she said.

That can include benefits such as a diversity of views and experiences, of viewpoints and of thinking – the sorts of inputs that are required for a team in any workplace and industry to innovate and to be successful.

How to eliminate unconscious bias

Recruiters and HR professionals who are aware of unconscious bias and want to eliminate its effects have a few strategies they can use.

Unconscious bias in recruitment begins long before a candidate is selected. It can occur in the drafting and placement of the job ad itself. Here are a few of the most popular and effective methods for overcoming unconscious bias at this early stage and encouraging a diverse range of applicants:

  • Advertising in non-traditional places – like disability-specialist recruiters, women’s employment networks or Indigenous-specialist job boards, to encourage a diverse range of applicants.
  • Highlighting equal opportunity – for example, mention your “return to work” program, your flexible working arrangements, an encouragement for Indigenous applicants or your White Ribbon

Once you have the applications in front of you and the interviewing process begins, consider:

  • Using blind applications – where the identifying details from the resume are removed, including name, gender and even the name of the specific tertiary organisation where a qualification was earned. This puts all candidates on a level playing field.
  • Assessing your questions for bias – where an interview is being done, check the questions that will be asked to ensure there’s no unconscious bias within them (including really simple things like ensuring the language used is gender-neutral).

  • Adapting the process – for example, someone might not interview well but might be perfect for the job. There are other ways to test someone’s suitability for a role, including work samples, skills assessments and psychometric testing.

Unconscious bias: what we believe

MPi Managing Consultant for Workforce and Labour Hire in Kalgoorlie, Kylie Nunweek said, as a recruiter, eliminating bias against a candidate meant the pool of “employable people” for any given job was much wider.

“That means we can focus specifically on making the right choice based on the skills criteria for the role,” she said.

“Our database searches are not completed on an age, race or gender filter – we simply search for the skillset and then pull up a list of results. Resumes are reviewed without needing to look at the candidate’s name and from there we create a short list. This avoids unconscious bias as much as possible and has the consultant focusing specifically on the criteria for the role – not on who the person presents to be, based on any other perception.”

If you’re looking for professional mining industry-specialist recruitment services, get in touch with Mining People International and ask about our recruitment process outsourcing support.


Dan Hatch
Mining People International