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Unconscious Bias & Affinity Bias in the Hiring Process

The first and potentially most critical phase that needs an injection of diversity inclusivity is the hiring process itself.

Interview and candidate screening processes are extremely vulnerable to different forms of bias that can prevent from hiring certain candidates based on their race, appearance, background, or gender. Whilst there are multiple forms of bias, arguably the most damaging biases to the hiring process are unconscious bias and affinity bias.

What is Unconscious Bias in the Workplace?

To put this term unconscious bias into more context, research has found that when interview questions are not standardised the questions can be favourable to one specific group of people, which paves the way for inequality in hiring. Unconscious bias happens as a result of prolonged exposure to negative portrayals of specific individuals in the media. Or can be deep-rooted in gender and racial stereotypes that negatively label and group people based on assumption, rather than treating them like individuals.

Unconscious bias is arguably the most dangerous form of bias as it often goes undetected. For example, an in-depth study conducted by the UK Government examined applicant data from a group of candidates applying to a job. The applicants who had ‘white-sounding names’ were far more likely to receive a positive response over people with ‘BME sounding names.’ The applicants who appeared to be white typically received a positive response after sending nine applications with a 10.7% success rate, whilst applicants who appeared to be from BME backgrounds (who were equally qualified with the same amount of experience), only had a 6.2% success rate from 16 applications. Simply a candidate’s name can unknowingly put them at a disadvantage. On an individual level, Funke Abimbola a high-flying Nigerian lawyer and businesswomen spoke to the BBC recently about D&I and stated that she refused to change her African name despite believing that she missed job opportunities because of it.

What is Affinity Bias in the Workplace?

Another example of potential bias in the workplace is affinity bias in which companies hire the person they deem to be a cultural fit based on personal similarities in experience or background to the interviewee or hiring manager. Builtin argues that to combat this, companies should look for a “cultural add rather than a cultural fit,” which is the idea that widening the candidate pool to people who can add value rather than simply fit the standardised mould and can be beneficial to the culture and success of a company.

On affinity bias, Asif Sadiq Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Adidas writes that it exists to create a cultural fit rather than respecting that the candidate’s differences help the survival of business through diversity, innovation, and creativity. As such, self-awareness of bias in hiring can work towards an increasingly fair and equal hiring process. Companies should train interviewers on how to avoid unconscious and affinity bias, how to open up an honest dialogue, and how to understand and appreciate the value of diversity.

How Do We Challenge Bias?
‘Blind Hiring’

A potential way to shift the paradigm is blind hiring. This can have benefits in that it seeks to remove any kind of bias (racial, gender, background, age, sexual orientation), and allows a level playing field of hiring based on performance and experience. This is an important asset to diversity hiring and blind and ungendered screening processes certainly have some visible benefits, namely the fact that there was a massive 40% increase in the hiring of ethnic minorities over white able-bodied men and that women are 25-46% more likely to be hired using blind applications. On the other hand, it could be argued that this is simply blanketing the issue as it eradicates the chance to acknowledge individual differences in our backgrounds, the diversity in our skills, celebrate these differences, and show how they can make someone a stronger candidate. Simply removing the name of a candidate or their gender does not get to the crux of the issue which is that we should not have to remove somebodies’ gender or ethnicity to make them the right fit for the job.

Bias Training & Mentorship

Unfortunately, bias is a part of human nature, however we are in control of letting bias unfairly cloud our judgement. Increasing bias training in organisations can be an effective way to prevent unconscious bias from taking hold. Having an awareness and understanding that everyone is susceptible to bias as a part of human nature and acknowledging and identifying bias can help us to move past them. A good example of this in practice is PwC, who in 2016 announced that all new members of staff must take place in a ‘blind spot’ training session focused on unconscious bias training.

Linking back to the previously mentioned article by Asif Sadiq, he also provides an insightful approach to diversity and how not to approach it. He writes that “organisations need to take a step back and take the lens off diversity specific recruitment strategies.” Whilst there are benefits to advertising diversity inclusion programs, he implores companies to be more honest and rather than including diversity in their rhetoric for the sake of appearing more all-inclusive, to actually involve candidates in their growth and journey towards creating more diverse teams and to admit if and where they are lacking. He concludes that companies that take the time to explore individual employees’ unique identities will stand better chance of recruiting and retaining diverse talent.  

A way to improve and celebrate diversity is by increasing support systems, mentoring, and providing role models. Simply initiating D&I programs is not enough, as internal problems such as a lack of mentorship for minority individuals means that D&I programs lack real substance. By way of illustration, David Wallis (a Partner at Deloitte) has recently launched the company’s “Black Action Plan,” which aims to educate people within the company and to nurture black talent. Similarly, the global consulting firm Kearney have recently launched ‘Black Ventures’ to help with the development and provide support to black-owned businesses and leaders, as well as implementing annual anti-racism training sessions. 

Adapting Our Language in the Hiring Process

The Professional Women’s Network (PWN) believe that “leveraging 100% of the world’s talent leads to improved business performance, better decision making, economic sustainability and a happier society.” So why are only 4.9% of Fortune 500 CEOs and 2% of S&P CEOs women?

Redefining the interview and recruitment process offers a possible solution to the problems posed. A recent PwC study about gender inclusivity found that the highest percentage of females believed that the impact of gender stereotypes and assumptions in the recruitment process made for the most significant barrier to diversity hiring, with 95.4% of IT professionals agreeing that recruiters and HR teams need to do more to engage women and improve their candidate experience.

Girls Who Code, have introduced programs into schools and colleges and have the ambition to close the gender gap in new entry-level tech jobs by 2027. The correlation between the success of these programs and the number of women who apply to these companies is evident and 74% of female respondents ranked diversity programmes as either “very important” or “extremely important” to their decision to apply for a role and when researching potential employers. 

The language used during the recruitment process can impact how many candidates apply to a role. For example, as it has been suggested in many other studies, women are more likely than men to believe they must meet 100% of the requirements in order to apply for a role. Equally, women are more likely to attempt to in some way align their own personality with the terminology used. Fundamentally some of the language most frequently used in job descriptions can be considered off putting and contradictory to the way women conduct themselves in the workplace. If you compare the language used on the Professional Women’s Network website “challenge, learn, grow” with the language often used in role descriptions “expert” “must have,” this only exacerbates the problem many women have when approaching jobs and are faced with language that implies less support and higher expectations.

We can tackle this problem in relation to the hiring process by first adapting the language used in the role requirements to include less “gendered language,” eradicating any language that can offend or isolate a specific group of people, and by including more neutral terms in order to attract both male and female candidates. BCG suggest avoiding terms like “IT wizard” in job postings for tech roles and many other sources recommend using gender decoder or bias evaluation software to check and correct language. Furthermore, it is imperative to remove terms from job descriptions that can be deemed to be racially insensitive such as “black list” or the term “brown bag,” which in the modern context refers to meetings over lunch; however, has previous connotations with the “brown paper bag test” an African-American form of racial discrimination.

Finally, offering the right kind of support for women can be fundamental to attaining and retaining female talent. With the pandemic blurring the lines between home and working life, companies must ensure that they are doing everything in their power to accommodate for their employees during this change in dynamic. Emily Spaven, UK editor at Linkedin News, suggests that “employers that offer flexible hours and remote working can go a long way in supporting working mums and helping to mitigate some of the issues facing parents”, which she believes is one way to prevent the posed permanent damage to women’s employment opportunities.


As we adapt to changing circumstances fostering an all-inclusive workforce can help us to recover. Breaking down the barriers of racial and gender inequality and opening up a dialogue as early as the hiring stage can help to path the way for a more diversely skilled and therefore successful business. More importantly increasing representation, offering support and mentorship to professionals in the ethnic minority category and for women is a great way to ensure diversity measures are sustainable and to avoid diversity strategy becoming just a numbers game. Moreover, marketing D&I programs, having open and honest interviews with candidates, and increasing bias training, are all ways that we can improve and encourage the creation of more successful teams.

For more information on where IRG can diversify your leadership and executive teams, please contact Kate Johnstone on +44 782 578 7526.