Subconscious Discrimination: When Cognitive Bias is employed in Recruitment, Promotion or Selection

April 17

Whenever you are responsible for hiring or promoting an employee, your subconscious plays a large part in the selection process, whether you realise it or not. Unfortunately, the methods that people use to make these types of decisions will often lead to cognitive biases being employed.

There is always a risk that a person will subconsciously discriminate when choosing between candidates. By bearing in mind the different types of cognitive bias that can be relevant in recruitment it will be easier to recognise if it happens. A cognitive bias is unintentional by nature, and as such it is hard to discern when it happens. The best advice is to make a checklist of skills which a candidate for the role needs and not deviate from that too far. Discretion is always important, but by eliminating cognitive bias you will have a better chance of making your recruitment efforts worthwhile for the long term by offering a lower churn rate.

What is Cognitive Bias in Recruitment

Areas that might be included in such cognitive bias discrimination include hiring people that are like we see ourselves because we make the assumption that people sharing our traits are better. This might not turn out to equate to a person that is capable in doing the job you are hiring for, and you are not looking for a friend as the top priority, you are looking for the most capable person for the job.

Conforming to ambiguous definitions commonly accepted in business culture. This is done to not disrupt team norms that might be well established or to comply with the accepted rules of behaviour – commonly known as ‘group think’. For instance, if a person has a haircut that is non-traditional, or they wear clothing that does not align with conservative business culture, that does not mean they lack the brains and insight to do the job in which they are applying for.

Making ‘gut feeling’ decisions due to being busy and not taking the time to question any of the assumptions that we make about potential candidates. This is thought of as the Halo effect and can also be referred to as confirmation bias, availability bias or expedience bias. If you don’t take the time to consider the right aspects of the prospective employee, you are just wasting your own time as well as theirs. It helps to have a list of questions formulated ahead of any interview which you can use to save time and to remember to cover the most important aspects. After interviewing a few prospects you will also be able to compare these answers.

Weighting experience over capability is a common mistake recruiters can also make, due to a deep held belief that experience is what predicts a high performance. This is bias of experience or a Fundamental Attribution Error, the Illusion of Transparency effect or the False Consensus Effect. Someone might have a lot of experience but just be good at following instructions, with no capability of thinking outside the box, and that might have someone with no experience but high capabilities a better choice.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]People tend to hire others that are connected to someone that they know and respect or who is in their own network in the belief that someone linked closely is a better option.[/pullquote]

People tend to hire others that are connected to someone that they know and respect or who is in their own network in the belief that someone linked closely is a better option. This is called Temporal discounting or Affective Forecasting.  This could create more problems due to finding that they do not feel able to let the person go as fast, should they not work out. It is one thing to interview an applicant that is referred to you but you should approach the review of all applicants in the same light, with the premade list of relevant factors that will not include anything on who they know.

Considerations to Remember

Some of the considerations that people factor into their decision-making processes are not relevant at all in the grand scheme of producing a winning result; for example, while it is nice to know those who are employed ahead of time, it should not be considered a factor in choosing the best employee. Links will be made once the right employee is brought on board, and there will be similarities between employees with things in common no matter what, since they all work at the same company and have an understanding over the same industry.

There is also a catch 22 that is created when a candidate is only considered if they have a pre-determined amount of working experience in that career. The fact is that there are newly trained candidates who will continue to be available and who all have different benefits to their skills; quite a lot of the time a person’s mindset and problem-solving skills are far more important than the experience they hold. For example, someone that has worked for 10 years holding a job title in a major corporation that is applying for a similar role in a small business might have much further to go to fit in with the small business than the newly trained candidate does. This will be true for the fact that they worked in a completely different business scenario and might not have any experience at all in operating within a small office, which means for all intent and purpose they are as untrained as the newly qualified candidate.

There can be times where cognitive bias can prove to be favourable; the key is to recognise that it is happening and weight it against the list of relevant factors to each interview. In order to build a team that is high producing with maximum output potential, a range of skills should be added to it in order for the team as a group to be better prepared with skills to see through any eventuality. In this way it can be seen that favourable skills will at times be counter-intuitive to the skills which someone who you know might bring, or which you hold yourself. A well-rounded team will contain both introverts and extroverts, men and women, people from different backgrounds, and will work to blend at the optimal level.

[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]By choosing people that are all similar in nature the team itself in the form of the business you are recruiting for will become mono-cultured, which could prove to be a negative if the course or scope of services provided by the business changes, or if the work does not go as planned. [/pullquote]


A cognitive bias means that we all have a tendency of focusing on things that we subconsciously deem as important, and since it happens without our realising it, sometimes it can be hard to recognise. This shows that there are a lot of considerations that must be made when choosing the candidate that will choose to remain employed within the company. The act of hiring or promoting is one that is highly trained and diverse and the difference in hiring mindset can act as the determining factor in long term employment success.

The purpose of recruitment is to build teams and the overall team structure should be kept in mind when interviewing prospective applicants who vary in their approach, skills set or background experience within the role. By choosing people that are all similar in nature the team itself in the form of the business you are recruiting for will become monocultured, which could prove to be a negative if the course or scope of services provided by the business changes, or if the work does not go as planned. There are many good reasons why the basic skills needed for a role should be noted prior to the interview process and then consideration should be given to implementing a wide degree of variation in other aspects of the chosen applicant.

About the Author

Shay Dalton

Managing Director 16498583

Shay Dalton is the Managing Director of Lincoln Recruitment Group. Shay is a qualified ACCA Accountant with over 20 years’ experience specialising in the placement of senior positions across a broad spectrum of Accountancy and Finance positions within the industrial and financial services sectors. Having been involved in the establishment of some of the most respected financial recruitment brands in the Irish market, Shay subsequently set up Lincoln Recruitment Specialists in 2008. He also hold’s an MSc in Organisational Management and is a member of BPS, qualified to conduct and interpret psychometric testing as well an EQi testing.

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