Unconscious bias and how to keep it in check

Unconscious bias creeps silently through the corridors of most companies – so how can recruiters help to keep it at bay? Winners of the 2015 SARAs People’s Choice award, Fiona Harland, from ERG Recruitment, shares her advice.

Every one of us is a product of our environment, at least when it comes to our unconscious bias.

An unconscious bias is created and reinforced by our personal background and experiences. It happens automatically and is triggered by our brain when we’re making quick judgements and assessments of people and situations. This is more likely to occur when we’re particularly busy or simply lacking all the data – our unconscious bias kicks in to fill in the gaps, ultimately influencing the decisions we make and our interactions with co-workers.

So, how does this affect our careers in recruitment?

It’s a good question. While our profession seems simple enough to explain to others, it’s not as straightforward as describing the role of a doctor or a police officer – we can all assume and believe we understand their profession. But when describing our job to others, do you call yourself a recruiter, a consultant or an employment adviser? Do we struggle to define ourselves because a hidden bias has crept in based on a candidate or client’s poor experience?

This is just one example of how we deal with biases and assumption. It’s not something we’re likely to bring up in conversation, but rather keep it hidden. The problem with that is, keeping quiet can fuel discrimination – and that’s not something we want to encourage.

Shout it from the rooftops

So how do we, as advisers, keep our unconscious bias in check? My answer is simple really – by talking about it openly.

In New Zealand, we tend to adopt a gentle, politically-correct stance to avoid conflict. But in our diverse world, I don’t see how we can continue down this path any longer. We need to be agile, flexible and speak our minds.

This means spending more time reflecting honestly on the reasons why we rejected a candidate or if they didn’t make the cut with a client. When it comes to our teams, help them to make small changes, such as using context to explain a situation or challenging a stereotype. Through peer leadership, our staff have the opportunity to share transparent conversations, promote the need to unlearn current beliefs and replace them with new ones.

I believe our industry can flourish with great leadership – let’s use our wealth of experience working in a people-related profession to help improve processes, policies and procedures to engage greater diversity and thought leadership. Before we know it, our staff, candidates and clients will find the confidence to make decisions without a hidden bias tainting the outcome.

Submissions for the 2016 SEEK Annual Recruitment Awards (SARAs) will open 9 June 2016 and close 4 August 2016. Find out more information.

  • About the author

About the author

Fiona Harland

ERG Recruitment Group


Fiona Harland is a Director at ERG Recruitment Group. She is a strong advocate for disadvantaged and marginalised members of our communities. She also works closely with the Annah Stretton foundation RAW as a mentor for incarcerated New Zealand...