Understanding the science of hiring bias (and how to overcome it)

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5 mins, 10 secs read time

Want to make better hiring decisions? If your answer is yes (and we certainly hope it is), it’s time to make an honest and critical assessment of bias. When you understand all the ways bias can creep into your hiring decisions, you can make changes that will limit its effects. Not sure how to do that? We’re here to help.

Our recent webinar, Sustaining DE&I in 2021 and beyond, gathered several talent leaders to examine how bias can affect hiring decisions. Gary Davis, Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Advisory Director at Greenhouse, channeled his inner Oprah while moderating a discussion between Erin L. Thomas, Head of Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging and Talent Acquisition at Upwork, Riham Satti, Co-founder and CEO of MeVitae, and Steven Bartel, Co-founder and CEO of Gem. Our panelists shared stories from the field and insights they’ve gained through their own work to mitigate bias in hiring.

Watch the webinar on demand by clicking here – or keep reading for the key takeaways.

Defining bias

What exactly is bias? “Very simply, bias is any proxy that you’re using to make a decision. Biases are shortcuts that draw on previous information, hearsay and prototypes,” says Erin. In many cases, biases can be helpful – if we actually integrated all the stimuli we receive in a given moment, we wouldn’t be able to function.

But relying on these mental shortcuts makes us more prone to make mistakes. We need to be especially careful when making decisions about people.

Erin explained that there are two levels of bias that can impact hiring. There are the individual biases (the mental shortcuts and proxies described above) as well as systemic biases (how we structure and streamline processes and filter candidates, for example). And while we can never fully remove bias at either level, we can confront it and do our best to limit its effects.

Identifying and mitigating bias in the hiring process

After defining bias, the panel discussed various ways that it can emerge throughout the hiring process and steps you can take to mitigate it. Here are a few key takeaways.


When sourcing candidates on sites like LinkedIn, recruiters may narrow in on specific schools or degrees. This approach can exclude large numbers of qualified candidates. Steven suggests coming up with strategies to counteract this type of bias such as broadening your search terms to include historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs), women’s colleges and non-traditional educational institutions like coding camps.

Widening the talent pool is your competitive advantage.
–Riham Satti, Co-founder and CEO of MeVitae

Taking a close look at your data can also bring surprising insights. When the Upwork talent acquisition team reviewed their pipeline data, Erin says they discovered the pass-through rate from application to initial screen was 4%. This is more competitive than Harvard! Armed with that knowledge, the talent acquisition team set a goal to get 10% of applicants to the initial screen stage. When you spend more time with the candidates who are already in your pipeline, you can potentially create more opportunities for candidates from underrepresented backgrounds – and it doesn’t require any additional spending on sourcing, adds Erin.


Most cognitive biases kick in when people review resumes and cover letters. And you can take Riham’s word for this – she has conducted studies to track hiring managers’ eye movements when they read resumes. There are a few “hotspots” where they spend most of their time – the candidate’s name, job title and company name. These are all elements that tend to be influenced by biased decision-making. We recognize a school name or company name (or not) and make snap decisions accordingly. Hiring managers spend very little to no time on job responsibilities and skill sets, which is unfortunate since these are the parts of the resume that give the best indication of whether a candidate is qualified for a role.

One way to limit bias in the screening phase is through blind recruiting. In this practice, key identifiers like name, gender and ethnicity are redacted from resumes. Riham says blind recruiting can help companies increase the gender and ethnicity diversity of candidates by 30%.

Offer stage

When you rely on candidates to tell you what they expect or share what they currently make, you can potentially introduce bias into the offer stage. Research shows that inequities in pay can follow people throughout their careers. Plus, women are less likely to negotiate in the first place.

One of the most important things employers can do to limit bias in the offer stage is to have clear compensation packages. Erin recommends creating well-defined compensation, bonus and equity bands to take the negotiating differential off the table. This doesn’t just benefit your candidates and new hires, but also promotes internal equity among your existing employees as well.

Keep the equity conversation going

Keep in mind that your responsibility to limit bias doesn’t end when someone signs their offer letter. It’s just as important to consider how you’ll retain, develop and promote employees from different backgrounds. As Erin puts it, “There’s a continuity of care for candidates we bring in.”

In the early stages of opening a new role, Erin recommends working with hiring managers to clearly define what success will look like in the first 30, 60 and 90 days. Not only does this help you write more tailored job descriptions and better assess candidates, but it also creates a clear plan of action for new hires. They know exactly what’s expected of them and where to focus their efforts.

At Upwork, the talent acquisition team keeps track of new hire quality by monitoring performance and retention. Erin says they use their learnings to update onboarding and help new team members thrive.

When closing out the conversation, all panelists agreed that awareness isn’t enough to limit bias. The key point is to commit to taking action. Their discussion provides plenty of ideas and jumping off points to help you take those critical next steps.

Want to dig in deeper? Tune into the recorded webinar for even more practical advice from our panelists.

Melissa Suzuno

Melissa Suzuno

is a freelance writer and former Content Marketing Manager at Greenhouse. Melissa previously built out the content marketing programs at Parklet (an onboarding and employee experience solution) and AfterCollege (a job search resource for recent grads), so she's made it a bit of a habit to help people get excited about and invested in their work. Find Melissa on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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