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The Real Cost of Unconscious Bias in Recruitment


8 min read

Unconscious bias can manifest itself in a number of ways, negatively affecting your hiring process and significantly lowering your organization's productivity. This article helps you recognize and remove these biases, so you can create an effective workforce and reduce costs associated with failed hires.

HR manager thinking about unconscious bias in recruitment

In this article, you will find:

  1. What is Unconscious Bias in Recruitment?

  2. Examples of Unconscious Bias in Recruitment

  3. Unconscious Bias is Costing Your Organization

  4. How to Reduce Unconscious Bias in Your Recruiting

  5. Takeaways

What is Unconscious Bias in Recruitment? 

Unconscious bias is a form of prejudice by which logical judgment is undermined and replaced with a person’s first impressions. Bias can be present without us even noticing.

An example of this could be unconsciously letting hiring decisions be affected by "intuition" or positive/negative emotions toward the job applicant. A common factor that could lead to such biases is a candidate's unique demographic background, such as race, gender, sexual orientation, or age group.

This bias can drastically influence how we perceive candidates before any evaluation. As a hiring professional, you must consider this when assessing candidates. This means ensuring your hiring decisions are based on an objective evaluation of the necessary job-relevant skills (hard skills) and personality fit (soft skills) for the specific role.

Recruitment technology has advanced to provide easy access to objective and comprehensive evaluations of the skills required for a range of different roles. As a result, the right recruitment technology can become a powerful tool to eliminate unconscious bias in recruitment. 

Examples of Unconscious Bias in Recruitment

Recruiting leaders can better understand the phenomenon of subconscious attitudes by gaining insight into it. This understanding helps them detect and mitigate any negative effects when making hiring decisions. Below are examples of unconscious biases in recruitment and how they can arise. 

Confirmation Bias 

Confirmation bias happens when recruiters seek information supporting their beliefs about a candidate. This can lead them to favor candidates based on things like education or appearance while missing factors tied to job performance.

Failing to challenge pre-existing assumptions could prevent qualified applicants from joining the team. These applicants could bring new ideas and introduce positive change to the organization. 

Attribution Bias 

Attribution bias can arise when our assumptions about a given candidate are based on past experiences or interactions. As a result, we can attribute decisions to an individual's character without considering external factors that may have influenced the decision.

For instance, hiring managers can assume someone who's changed jobs often is a job hopper. However, this fails to consider external factors that may have contributed to changes in employment.

Attribution bias often happens during the first resume check, when recruiters look for important details and keywords. If they're not aware of this unconscious hiring bias, they might miss out on excellent candidates before meeting them. 

Halo/Horn Effect 

A form of implicit bias can often manifest itself as an effect known as the halo effect. In this phenomenon, recruiters attribute positive or negative characteristics to applicants based on a single, often physical, trait.

For example, if an applicant is deemed good-looking, recruiters may unconsciously think the applicant is more trustworthy. This positive view may overshadow other negative traits.

Conversely, recruiting teams can make negative assumptions about someone using this mental model. This phenomenon is classified as the horn effect. It's also the opposite of the halo effect.

For instance, an applicant's accent may lead them to be perceived as less intelligent, even if they are qualified for the job. 

Affinity Bias 

Affinity bias arises when recruiters gravitate toward job candidates with similar interests and backgrounds. This type of bias can be a problem during interviews. An interviewer may become too friendly with a candidate and impair their judgment.

An emotional connection with an interviewee can influence an interviewer's thought process. This could lead to missing out on skilled applicants who don't match the interviewer's interests or background.

Hiring based on "culture fit" can lead to a less diverse workforce. This means companies may be more likely to hire applicants who remind them of themselves. As a result, they limit diversity goals. 

Conformity Bias 

Recruiters are sometimes susceptible to unconscious bias in the form of conformity bias. This is a tendency to assume consensus among interviewers or hiring team members means the right choice.

In other words, consensus among several people may increase the likelihood of a candidate being chosen. This is true even if the consensus does not accurately reflect the candidate's capabilities or fit with the role.

This phenomenon can lead to unbalanced hiring decisions and often results in recruiting teams excluding otherwise qualified individuals. 

Unconscious Bias is Costing Your Organization 

Hiring a top performer in any complex role can be significantly more beneficial than hiring an average one. According to research by McKinsey, it can result in eight times more productivity. However, many organizations’ recruitment strategies are plagued by unconscious bias— whether it’s been detected or not. 

Simply put, recruiters often have a fixed idea of who would be a successful candidate. They don't always take into account the specific requirements of the role and organization. These biases can create a gap in performance.

Unconscious bias can lead to hiring less-than-ideal candidates, resulting in costly implications. If you can't find a great candidate for a job, improve your search plan and reduce biases before hiring someone.

There are several other implications of not addressing unconscious bias, including: 

  1. The average cost of a bad hire due to bias in recruiting practices can be more than $15,000. Between onboarding costs and performance gaps, this number can reach more than $50,000. 

  2. A mere 1% gender bias in big companies hiring over 8,000 workers yearly can cause 32 bad hires. 

  3. Companies with diverse management had 19% more income from innovation, proving the need for a robust varied group of top performers. 

  4. Whether in recruiting or the workplace, perceptions of bias can cost organizations more than $300,000 per case in legal fees

How to Reduce Unconscious Bias in Your Recruiting 

It’s easy to make snap judgments based on appearance, education, or past experience during the selection and interview process. However, this practice can prevent companies from creating a diverse workplace with employees who offer different perspectives and ideas.

To find the most qualified candidate for any given job, it's essential to address unconscious bias in your recruiting efforts. Here's what you need to know. 

1. Identify objective data points that predict job performance 

To lower unconscious bias in hiring, start by using data tied to how well someone does their role. This will allow you to create an ideal candidate profile based on measurable traits rather than subjective opinions.

You should focus on elements backed by industry research or your company's data directly predicting how well someone works. By carefully reviewing these factors, you can make hiring decisions with less bias and find the right person for each job.

For instance, looking for outgoing and responsible qualities in sales applicants takes the focus off things like gender or background. This helps select the best performers. 

2. Get executive buy-in through data 

More likely than not, change starts from the top, and your leadership team needs to be aware of the problem. Recruiting the best talent requires an intentional process minimizing unconscious bias.

To start, show how cutting down bias in hiring helps everyone. Data can reveal how fair hiring boosts staff happiness and work quality while leading to better products and services.

Also, share surveys about your employees to show how hidden bias affects retention. This process will help leaders see the value of investing time and money to make the hiring process fairer. 

3. Identify structural issues in your recruiting processes 

An essential next step to reducing hiring bias is to take a long, hard look at existing recruiting processes. Begin by checking job descriptions for biased words or gendered terms. If some words favor a gender, change the text to attract female applicants too.

Moreover, requiring a certain level of education can prove ineffective. Academic background is not proven to have a strong link to job performance. This common requirement reduces the talent pool you can access, and you could be overlooking skilled applicants.

For example, many top-performing IT candidates are self-taught. If you require a master's degree for an IT position, you would be missing out on top talent.  

4. Set tangible goals for improving and tracking progress 

Crafting a plan for operating the hiring process is critical to reducing unconscious bias in hiring decisions. This includes creating rich and diverse assessments administered uniformly and implementing a structured interview process.

This process of standardizing hiring helps ensure fairness for each applicant. It also allows for practical, more unbiased, data-driven hiring instead of relying on instinct or "gut feeling." Such an approach provides a more equitable procedure for everyone involved in the quest to remove unconscious bias.

It's important to set specific targets to see and measure improvement. Set a number, timeline, and resources needed to reach this goal. Make your goals realistic and measurable to see progress in removing unconscious bias in hiring.

When setting targets, focus on hiring process effectiveness using objective data. Compare the performance of people hired through data-driven methods to those hired traditionally. You'll likely see a performance difference, as those chosen objectively often do better. 

5. Leverage tech to address unconscious bias in recruitment at scale 

Technology can help address unconscious bias in recruiting by making screening, interviews, and selections based on criteria linked to performance. For example, data-driven assessments measure personality, skills, and emotional intelligence. This allows recruiters to choose based on merit, not stereotypes.

Using an Applicant Tracking System (ATS) with a built-in Talent Assessment solution is a practical approach. A good Talent Assessment solution should evaluate applicants' future job performance and adjust for different job types. It gives you data to identify top performers and remove unconscious biases in the process. The ATS handles all recruitment data, including talent assessment data, and should improve the candidate experience and speed up hiring.

In sum, the right recruitment technology can be the key to delivering on steps 1-4 above.      


To prevent bias in hiring decisions, use a systematic approach with criteria based on performance data. This helps encourage diversity and inclusion while building a strong workforce. By focusing less on factors like education and more on capabilities, you'll hire for performance results.

Fight hidden biases in recruitment by using data-driven assessments, standardized hiring steps, and technology to reduce mistakes. With these practices in place, you can build diverse, talented teams. This will help your organization create an inclusive, high-performing workforce that encourages innovation and growth.

Philip Berg Frederiksen

Philip Berg Frederiksen

Co-Founder, COO at TalentMesh

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