Résumé screeners and interviewers may be unknowingly influenced by irrelevant characteristics of a candidate

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Given the significant costs associated with recruiting, training and retaining talented employees, it is critical that organizations identify and hire the best possible job candidates. Unfortunately, résumé screeners and interviewers may be unknowingly influenced by irrelevant characteristics of a candidate, resulting in unconscious prejudice. But there are ways to limit the effects of bias.

Unconscious prejudice

In a well-known field experiment[1], researchers replied to job postings by submitting identical “fake” résumés, half with names typically associated with African-Americans (e.g., Lakisha, Jamal), and half with names associated with Caucasians (e.g., Emily, Greg). Despite having identical qualifications, African-American applicants received 50 percent fewer callbacks from potential employers.

A similar résumé experiment conducted in Sweden showed that résumés bearing names popular among the country’s minority Arab/Muslim population were 10 percent less likely to receive callbacks.[2]

The authors of the Swedish résumé study followed up with hiring managers to collect measures of prejudice, some which are unlikely to be under volitional control. Their investigation showed the disparity in callbacks in the initial résumé studies might be due to implicit bias, rather than any conscious decision to discriminate.

Researchers have amassed a wealth of evidence that the mental processes of social perception and impression formation are often dictated by learned associations, or stereotypes, that fly below the radar of conscious choice[3]. A test for measuring implicit bias has even been developed.

Unconscious prejudice based on race, gender, sexual orientation and political affiliation has received the most media attention, but other instantaneous mental associations also may derail well-intentioned recruiters.

For instance, research using a psychological technique called priming has shown that the “beauty premium” phenomenon[4] – which results in attractive candidates receiving preferential treatment in hiring – arises automatically and requires little effort or attention[5].

Height also can result in preferential treatment. In his book “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking,” Malcolm Gladwell noted the disproportionate number of company leaders (and U.S. presidents) who are tall[6]. Gladwell discovered that 30 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs were 6’2” or taller, compared to just 3.9 percent of adult men in the general American population.

Although multiple factors might explain this, Gladwell speculated that tall leaders are chosen because we have “a sense, in our minds, of what a leader is supposed to look like, and that stereotype is so powerful that when someone fits it, we simply become blind to other considerations.”

Gladwell referred to this as the Warren Harding error on account of Harding’s impressive stature, which apparently buoyed his pedestrian qualifications for the presidency.

How to limit bias for better hiring

What can you do to guard against unconscious prejudice and improve the decision-making of all members of your hiring chain, from headhunters to HR professionals?

First, make your recruiting process as anonymous as possible. Assign numbers to job applicants and strip away identifying information that might reveal gender, race or socioeconomic status to résumé screeners.

Unconscious prejudice is more likely to arise during in-person interviews because of the many nonverbal cues, so try to use phone interviews, at least early on in the screening process.

And second, create as much structure and consistency as possible in your recruiting process. For example, avoid, or at least limit, unstructured interviews, and rely instead on scripted and standardized questions that are less likely to introduce bias.

Expect to be challenged. It is likely that some members of your organization will balk at these changes because they believe in hiring based on “gut feel” and intuition[7], a potentially discriminatory approach that rarely generates consistent positive results.

Will these strategies eliminate implicit bias? Probably not, but they will make it harder for unconscious prejudice to creep into the decision-making process.

Mathew S. Isaac, Ph.D. Assistant Professor of Marketing, Seattle University Albers School of Business and Economics

The Seattle University Albers School of Business develops exceptional business leaders who are values-driven and committed to advancing the common good.


[1] Bertrand, M., and Mullainathan, S. (2004). Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination. The American Economic Review, 94(4), 991-1013.

[2] Rooth, D. O. (2010). Automatic associations and discrimination in hiring: Real world evidence. Labour Economics, 17(3), 523-534.

[3] Greenwald, A. G., & Krieger, L. H. (2006). Implicit bias: Scientific foundations. California Law Review, 94(4), 945-967.

[4] Dipboye, R. L., Arvey, R. D., & Terpstra, D. E. (1977). Sex and physical attractiveness of raters and applicants as determinants of resumé evaluations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 62(3), 288.

[5] Olson, I. R., & Marshuetz, C. (2005). Facial attractiveness is appraised in a glance. Emotion, 5(4), 498.

[6] Gladwell, M. (2007). Blink: The power of thinking without thinking. Back Bay Books.

[7] Lank, A. G., & Lank, E. A. (1995). Legitimizing the gut feel: the role of intuition in business. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 10(5), 18-23.