Avoiding Bias in Hiring

Even in nonprofits, it is hard to avoid bias in hiring. We want to be better than for profit companies and give everyone an equal chance, but the truth is that we are all human and have opinions about other people. If you grew up in an all-white environment, you have to put in more effort to relate to someone of another race. If you have never known someone who is deaf, you won’t know how to communicate with a potential deaf employee.

Studies (1) (2) show that having a more diverse workforce makes organizations and businesses more productive and more successful, but it takes conscious thought to develop a workplace with a variety of people.

Diversity doesn’t just mean a different skin color. It can be someone of a different religion, political party or socio-economic status. It can be someone with a disability, or a single mother, or someone who is transgender or gay, or someone who struggles with mental illness.

  1. Look around at the employees you currently have. What characteristics do they share? How are they different? Do they represent your client population? Think about yourself, and the type of people you naturally gravitate to getting to know. Explore your own biases first so you understand them better. Avoid the mini-me syndrome, in which you look for someone to have a similar background to your own. Too many clones in one organization results in a lack of creative ideas.
  2. Create a strong job description that is focused on the core competencies you need in a position, and use that as your metric for hiring. Consider whether you really need someone who has a university degree or a driver’s license for the position, as that is often not necessary, and excludes a number of potential applicants. I always included a bachelor’s degree as a requirement, but in looking back, I really just wanted someone with enough life and work experience to be a great employee, which isn’t necessarily obtained as part of getting a degree.
  3. Consider how you advertise your position. Are you just posting it through local colleges? Are you asking your coworkers for recommendations? I have had great success in the past promoting positions to our organization’s clients. They know something about the organization and its impact already, and bring new perspectives on how the organization can serve the community better.
  4. If possible, have someone else collect applications and remove names and addresses from them so that when you are conducting the initial screening, you can just see their education and experience and not be swayed by gender or a foreign name.
  5. In the interview process, stick to the script. Create a solid list of questions to address what you need the person to do, with a focus on asking them to describe how they have demonstrated those skills in the past. Comparing these answers will be less biased than a more free form interview. (See last week’s post about conducting interviews.)
  6. Be aware of our tendency to form an opinion of someone in the first 30 seconds of meeting them. You will do it, we all do, but consider that initial opinion carefully, and be sure to include all the information you gather during the interview in your consideration of each candidate.
  7. Ask the candidates to perform a skill-based test. Hiring an office assistant? Ask them to create a spreadsheet and type a letter. Hiring a fundraiser? Ask for a short fundraising presentation. These tests will show the candidate’s skills in a way that connects to the actual job duties.

I’ve hired dozens of people over the years, and have tried to choose diverse candidates, although I haven’t always made the right choice. During a recent hiring decision, a manager and I had to choose between two strong candidates. One was very much like us, similar background, similar education, similar experiences. The other was quite different, but had a strong passion for the job. We ultimately chose the second person and were pleased with the results. The new ideas that she brought to the organization were valuable, and strengthened her program.

What other methods do you use to increase diversity at your organization? Add your comments below.

1 thought on “Avoiding Bias in Hiring”

  1. Ingrid, such great points. One additional tip is to have a diverse team attend the structured interviews–it increases the hiring rate of women and minorities to be more similar to the population. Panel interviews also help with the unconscious biases, different panelists have different ones and can help each other mitigate these.


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