Recruiting: How unconscious biases influence our decisions

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Recruiting and unconcious bias –

How unconscious prejudices influence our decisions

Imagine you are looking for employees for a management position. You have a pile of applications in front of you. They have applicants, some with German names, some with Turkish names and some with African-sounding names. What is going on inside you? “Nothing” you say? – So you remain completely objective and dispassionate? Is that really the case? Most of us assume that our decisions are objective. Science, however, proves the opposite.


In our last article, we looked at how we make decisions – and why we unfortunately fail to remain objective. We have also examined psychological effects. These are unconscious processes that prevent us humans – even with our best knowledge and conscience – from making objective judgments and purely rational and fact-based decisions. Unfortunately, psychological effects are not the only processes that elude our knowledge and thwart our objectivity.


“Unconscious bias” – unconscious prejudices

In addition to all the behavioral mechanisms already mentioned, there are also prejudices and stereotypes. Even if we don’t want to admit it: Even if we think of ourselves as the rational type of person and have nothing to do with discrimination, science has proven in countless studies that unconscious prejudices exist, and even worse – that each and every one of us has such prejudices. Everyone. But why is that?


How prejudices arise – our brain

Our brain has to process an infinite amount of information every moment. In order to work more effectively, it searches for patterns. It summarizes all the experiences and impressions we have ever had so that it can orient itself to these patterns. All this happens without our knowledge! We actually firmly believe that we ourselves have no prejudices, even though it has been neurologically proven that our brain works precisely with prejudices. Of course, most people don’t want to be intolerant or even discriminate against anyone, either consciously or unconsciously, so it’s not surprising that we keep our prejudices a secret from ourselves.


Kristen Pressner explains the connections wonderfully in her TED talk in English:


“There will be no more job interviews in 10 years”…

…is the headline of a Stern interview with Harvard professor Iris Bohnet, also a member of the Board of Directors of Credit Suisse Group. In her highly acclaimed book “What Works – Gender Equality by Design”, the behavioral economist deals with how unconscious prejudices and their effects can be reduced.
For example, she welcomes the fact that anonymized applications are already standard in the USA. And she goes even further: she has the name, address, gender and even the universities attended crossed out before CVs are assessed, so as not to be distracted by this but to concentrate on the applicant’s performance.
Bohnet in the Stern interview: “It’s amazing: in our finance departments and even in our marketing departments, everything is analyzed and backed up with big data. Only when it comes to our most important resource, our employees, do we behave as we did a hundred years ago and continue to fall for our often unconscious prejudices.”
She recommends asking applicants for samples of their work so that the candidate’s performance can speak for itself. She refers to a study on equal opportunities: in the 1970s, some US orchestras began to allow female musicians to apply to play behind curtains, which increased the proportion of women from 5% to almost 40%. In orchestras where casting is not based exclusively on musical performance, 88-90% of the musicians are still men. Examples of this are the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras.


Unconscious prejudices often lead to discrimination


Studies on unconscious bias

Even if HR managers are of the opinion that they can see through prejudices and do not succumb to them, the figures speak a completely different, clear language:
A study by the German Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration found that applicants with German names were given preference over applicants with Turkish names with identical application letters. When applying for a job as a motor vehicle mechatronics technician, applicants with Turkish-sounding names were only invited to an interview after seven applications, whereas the success rate for German-sounding names was four applications before an invitation was extended. The fact that foreign-sounding names make applications perform worse despite having the same qualifications is consistent with values from a British study: 3000 identical applications were sent out, 1000 each with Caucasian, Asian and African names. The applicants with the typical white-sounding name were invited on average after 9 applications, the other two applicant groups had to apply 16 times to be invited.


An entertaining video explaining the unconcious bias in English.


The Implicit Asscociation Test (IAT)

In 1998, researchers Greenwald, McGhee and Schwartz developed a test at Harvard University to measure unconcious bias – the Implicit Association Test (IAT). The reaction time to a certain stimulus is measured. On the computer, two possible responses are given to a stimulus – i.e. a word or a picture. The theory behind the test is that if you have strong associations with something, you can click on a button with this association more quickly than on a button with the opposite content.


Would you like to try it yourself? Harvard University provides the test several times in German; for example, it deals with gender and career, ethnicity, East and West Germans, weight, etc. Here you can explore your unconscious biases


Equal opportunities versus unconscious bias – the Chefsache initiative

Executives from companies such as Bosch, Allianz, Siemens and McKinsey have joined forces in the Chefsache initiative. The aim here is to counteract the unconscious bias in order to ensure equal opportunities, because no company can afford to miss out on talent. To demonstrate that everyone can be subject to their own prejudices, board members, managing directors and CHROs talk about moments when they encountered their unconscious bias.

Bayer’s Head of Human Resources Hartmut Klusik as an example:



And now? What to do? How to deal with unconscious prejudices?

To summarize:
We all have prejudices. This is the way we think.
Since our prejudices operate in secret, it would not be wise for us to deny them outright and avert our gaze from them, because then they will have a free ride. If we want to ensure equal opportunities, then we should confront our own prejudices by first accepting that we have prejudices. – And in the next step, we should constantly question our thoughts and actions.
Speaking of which: What was actually one of your bias moments?


Further articles on our site:

  1. Lean Recruiting – software that guarantees objectivity in recruiting by focusing on an applicant’s skills.
  2. Recruiting mistakes – Why recruiters make the wrong decisions and what helps to prevent them
  3. Recruiting: How we found the perfect employee.
  4. Recruiting tools: How to find the right tool
  5. The best recruiting tool: Lean recruiting – and how it works.


Links and sources:

Unconscious bias, recruiting, decision making, unconscious bias – these are all interesting topics you might want to learn more about.
We have compiled a list of relevant articles for you here.


  • Iris Bonet talks at google. A video of approx. 55 min in English language


Here are some literature recommendations:

  • Rosabeth Moss Kanter (1977): Men and Women of the Corporation.
  • Iris Bohnet, “What Works – Gender Equality by Design”, which is on various “Best Book Shortlists”, for example the Financial Times. It will be published in German by C.H. Beck in fall 2017 and will be translated into several other languages.

The authors

Oliver Grätsch
Michelle 550
Michelle Templin
Christian Grätsch
Matthias Beikert
Susanne Grätsch
Monika Bt 550x550
Monika Steininger
Kai Hübner
Philipp Andresen 500x550
Philipp Andresen
Anna Isabell Arendt
Dr. Claudia Schmidt
Inga Kühn
Kassandra Knebel
Claudia Lehmann
Komplettes Team

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