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Overcoming Biases in Recruitment and Hiring

Written by: Alexandra Cloherty

During my undergraduate degree, I participated in a group test for privilege. We started all lined up against one wall. Then the moderator began – and for every statement that applied to us, we would take a step forward. For instance, "I don't worry that my hair style will be considered unprofessional at job interviews", "People don’t question my abilities based on my gender", and "People in high-power positions look like me". The results were striking. As a white woman, I was standing halfway across the room by the end - with white men ahead of me, men of colour around me, and women of colour behind me.

This activity was focused on calling our privileges to attention - privileges that often stem from biases in society. These biases can impact both our personal lives and our experiences at work, including our ability to recruit and our likelihood of being recruited. So, at the most recent TOPX Expert & Networking Meeting we asked: "How can we overcome biases in recruitment and hiring"?

What biases might we face, and why should we care?
Before overcoming any biases, we must first understand what they are. There are many different types of biases, but some that you may encounter during recruitment include:

1. First-impression error is the tendency to make very quick judgement of a person's behaviour during our first encounter with them, and then infer that this small behaviour sample truly reflects the person we have observed.
2. The Halo-horn effect, which is related to first-impression error. The halo effect occurs when a positive first impression leads us to treat somebody more favourably, while the horn effect occurs when a negative first impression leads us to treat somebody less favourably. For example, if a candidate conforms to societal beauty standards, they often receive the halo effect, and may thereby be perceived to have higher intelligence, discipline, and morality based on their appearance alone.
3. Groupthink, in which we allow opinions of our colleagues to influence our own opinions, whether those be positive or negative.
4. Social bias occurs when we make a judgment based only on somebody's membership in a specific group - for instance, based on their gender, race, religion or (dis)ability. This type of bias can interact with other types of bias - for instance, leading somebody to make a positive or negative first impression based on pre-existing notions about their gender.

As Lydia van der Meulen, Client Partner and Head of the Life Sciences & Healthcare Practice Group at Pedersen & Partners, sees it, it is important to invest in diversity, and addressing biases at work can support this venture. Research has shown that more diverse and inclusive companies do better in the long run. For instance, gender and ethnic diversity in companies is clearly correlated with profitability.

But how can we overcome our biases and achieve better inclusivity and diversity? Fear not - the speakers from the TOPX Expert & Networking Meeting have some ideas.

The role of recruiters

Katarina Putnik, Senior HR Policy Advisor Diversity & Inclusion at Erasmus University Rotterdam, kicked off the meeting by explaining how standardization during the recruitment and selection process is key: “Recruitment and selection processes should make it hard for biases to come through.” For instance, Katarina argues the required expertise and qualities within vacancy texts should be clearly defined. What is the definition of leadership skills to the company? And what skills are required from the outset, versus learned on the job? By completing this exercise of precisely defining required skills and qualities, the writers of the vacancy text may discover some previously unrecognized biases in themselves, as well as achieve a greater reach to more diverse – and potentially better matched – applicants.

Lydia agrees, saying that as a recruiter she is highly concerned with how she can stimulate diversity. Lydia leads by example by consciously working to overcome her unconscious biases, and educating her team to do the same. “It is important to do this in a non-judgemental way,” she says. Michele Mees, TEDx Keynote speaker and Co-founder of Inclusion Now, agrees, saying that before biases are addressed, trust must be created. “You can't give unconscious bias trainings in reactive mode or as a form of compliance – you first need the participants to be feeling good, safe”.

Creating a welcoming company culture

All three speakers were in agreement that company culture plays a key role in diversification of companies. “The idea that once we get more women in the pipeline the company culture will change automatically – that is something that I don’t believe,” Michele says. Rather, when new people are brought in, they tend to either adopt, or avoid (by leaving), the pre-existing culture in the organization. Thereby, when coaching organizations and companies to improve their inclusivity, Michele and her colleagues at Inclusion Now put great emphasis on organizational culture.

To help companies overcome biases and nurture an inclusive culture, Inclusion Now has developed a research-based programme called “HACK Your Bias” - with “HACK” serving as a useful mnemonic for addressing your unconscious biases: 

  • Halt what you’re doing, reflect, and give yourself a chance to learn.
  • Acknowledge what you are thinking and feeling in the moment. For instance, what are your thoughts when interviewing a candidate who is older than expected? How does that tie into your personal views on age and your preference for older or younger people?
  • Challenge and change your perspective. 
  • Keep on doing it. Hacking biases is a lifelong journey. You cannot eliminate bias, but you can reduce the impact of your biases.

Katarina agrees that company culture is key to promoting diversity, and underlines that good leadership is required to ensure that employees are able to effectively work in diverse groups. Lydia adds that companies must be aware that if their culture does not embrace diverse groups, the diverse talent will go elsewhere.

Bending biases for your own benefit
We definitely need to be aware of and overcome biases, but we can also bend them for our own benefit – and each of the speakers gave advice on how to do so.

1. Harness first impression bias by dressing to impress. Understand the organization's dress code before interviewing, and dress accordingly.
2. In negotiations for salary, use anchoring bias: the bias in which the first piece of available information is used as an anchor, and other information will be compared to it. For example, when negotiating for a salary, be the first to state a figure. That number will then be used as an anchor, and can drive up the final salary that is agreed upon – and be sure to put a high price on yourself!
3. Make use of scarcity bias, which can be simply summarized as FOMO: fear of missing out. When in an interview, make it seem like you are scarce, and in high demand from other companies.
4. In performance reviews, use recency bias: the fact that we best remember things that happened recently. You can put the spotlight on the things that went well of late, which will still be fresh in your supervisor’s mind.
5. Act confident, and you’ll be viewed as competent. For instance, when reading a vacancy text, don't worry if you don't fulfill all of the requirements. Chances are, nobody does. Rather, if the position looks like something you might want to, or be able to, do in 5 years, chances are you can do it now, and grow into the position. Just apply!
6. Avoid distance bias - when we prefer people closer in space or time versus those farther away – by building and using a network. A recommendation by a trusted acquaintance will paint you in a good light from the start.

Building a network
What better way to start, than with a pre-existing network for female professionals in Life Sciences seeking career advancement in industry or academia!

That is precisely what TOPX Network is. Check out for more information about TOPX and the TOPX meetings.
You can also find more information and inspiration on overcoming biases, and fostering diversity and inclusion on these helpful websites: and  

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