9 Common Hiring Bias Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Hiring bias can prevent you from creating strong, inclusive, and effective teams. Here are some common places bias can creep into the hiring process—and how to combat it.

By Loren Boyce, Matt Hoffman, Mimi Pham

August 25, 2023


Generated with Midjourney

Diverse workforces benefit from broader perspectives, wider talent pools, better product development, and increased financial outperformance. But unconscious bias can prevent companies from creating inclusive teams and cultures, becoming a blocker as early as the hiring process.

In our experience, startups making early hires often fall into one or more common bias traps, from evaluating candidates based on vague “culture fit” criteria to relying on inherently biased AI screening tools to make decisions. Taking the time to thoughtfully understand these problems and implement a structured hiring process can help teams avoid missteps—and create a positive flywheel effect that yields the benefits of a more diverse organization faster and more effectively.

“Once a team decides to fully commit to a structured interview process, so many good things start to happen: interview teams are aligned and more confident, they assess talent better, candidates have a superior experience, and the icing on the cake is that it significantly reduces bias,” says M13 VP of Talent Acquisition Loren Boyce. “More often than not, interview teams are surprised to see that even though they are spending more time at the beginning of a search to create structured interview plans and aligning their teams, they end up hiring faster.”

Below, we highlight a few of the most common places bias can creep into the recruiting process—and advise on how to avoid them.

At the end of the day, our old assumptions don't yield the talent businesses really need. If you actually want to have the best talent and stay competitive, then you have to begin to question your assumptions.

Shavar Jeffries, KIPP Foundation CEO at M13 Future Perfect 2023

Overly rigid qualifications

The scenario: Discouraging candidates who don’t meet 100% of listed qualifications.

Why it’s a problem: Women and other candidates from historically marginalized communities are less likely than men to apply for roles unless they meet all the qualifications. This limits the range of inbound applications and inhibits meaningfully screening for candidate abilities.

How to do better: Include language in your job description that acknowledges this reality and encourages people from underrepresented groups to apply. At M13, we look to hire as much for future potential as for past experience, and we include this blurb at the end of our job descriptions:

    Research shows that while men apply to jobs when they meet an average of 60% of the criteria, women and other marginalized folks tend to only apply to positions when they check every box. So if you have what it takes but don't necessarily meet every single point on the job description, please still get in touch. We'd love to chat and see if you could be a great match for this position!

Referral overreliance

The scenario: Relying only on referrals to source and hire candidates.

Why it’s a problem: It’s easy to just ask friends and colleagues for referrals, especially when you don’t have a full recruiting team in place. But this likely means missing out on huge networks of talent. We tend to know people who are similar to us, thereby inherently limiting the potential diversity of our top-of-funnel candidates. This leads to self-perpetuating teams of similar people hiring similar people.

How to do better: Actively source candidates who aren’t in your immediate networks. Post opportunities on social channels and share across multiple job boards. Even before hiring, focusing on building a diverse network and connecting with a broad community will help you cultivate a more diverse talent community to tap into when the time comes.

Lack of structure

The scenario: Not having a structured interview and evaluation process.

Why it’s a problem: Without structured procedures in place, interviews and evaluations lack consistency, leading different candidates to be evaluated based on different criteria.

How to do better: Agree on a structured interview process from the start with specific people assigned to specific tasks. Our DEIB checklist for startups can help you start taking the right steps toward setting up a recruiting process that is more organized, equitable, and effective.

Narrow field of search

The scenario: Relying only on a few keywords for diverse recruiting, such as searching exclusively for HBCU graduates.

Why it’s a problem: By limiting the scope of your search, you are competing with other hiring companies and relying on an inherently limited pool of talent. For example, HBCUs represent only 3% of all four-year nonprofit institutions, and they are geographically limited to the South and East, which is limiting for hiring teams not based in those regions.

How to do better: Expand boolean keyword searches to include other organizations or memberships dedicated to supporting members of underrepresented groups. Even better, form partnerships with organizations and pipeline programs that support talent from underrepresented groups to have access to their networks.

The ivory tower

The scenario: Making “top-tier” university pedigree a requirement.

Why it’s a problem: This unnecessarily creates barriers to entry and a false scarcity problem: everyone has a different definition of what “top-tier” might mean, but fewer than 0.5% of U.S. undergraduates attend an Ivy League school. That means you’re leaving a lot of talent behind.

How to do better: Spend time with your team to get clarity on the “why” behind a role, then focus on defining the specific skills needed to be successful in this role. Remind interviewers to be open minded about what experiences and other qualifications may add up to these skills, rather than looking for general markers of prestige. Tools like interviewing.io can be a useful resource for creating a more effective interview processes.

Culture fit vs. culture add

The scenario: Assessing candidates based on “culture fit.”

Why it’s a problem: “Culture fit” is a vague standard often used to disqualify candidates that are unlike existing individuals already at the company—meaning that solving for “culture fit” will introduce bias against people who are different.

How to do better: Clearly articulate qualifications that are relevant to the way work gets done at your company and assess them in a systematic way. Reframe “culture fit” as “culture add” to highlight the importance of diversity throughout the hiring process. Just as it is important for candidates to have a growth mindset, it’s important for organizations to believe they have the ability to coach and mentor someone who may not be a 100% fit today. Look for ways in which new candidates can expand and improve your existing culture, while still remaining true to core values.

Token interviewer

The scenario: Having someone who would not typically be on an interview panel join because they are from an underrepresented group.

Why it’s a problem: The employee who is joining is spending a disproportionate time on interviews in comparison to their peers, potentially inhibiting their ability to do their own work. They are also unlikely to be the best person to authentically represent the role and firm.

How to do better: Be mindful of who is asked to join interviews. Ensure that the true diversity of the firm is reflected throughout the interview process, and be honest about where there are opportunities for growth vs. artificially inflating perception by asking certain employees to bear an unfair burden.

Final stage representation

The scenario: Not having enough people from underrepresented groups moving through the funnel, especially at the finalist stage.

Why it’s a problem: Research has shown that when there is only one individual from an underrepresented group in a finalist pool of four, their odds of being hired are statistically zero because their differences from the majority of the group were made more salient.

How to do better: Before moving forward with finalist interviews, ensure there are at least two individuals from underrepresented groups who are a part of your slate of candidates.

Unchecked AI

The scenario: Using HR AI screening tools without oversight.

Why it’s a problem: AI tools are only as good as the data and algorithms they are trained on, and those often have bias built in (such as penalizing resumes with words like “women’s,” as in “women’s career development group” or “women’s lacrosse captain”).

How to do better: Never exclusively use AI tools to categorically pass through or reject candidates. Have a human backstop that is able to check biases that may appear in the process.

Get in touch:

If you're passionate about championing DEIB principles and have innovative ideas to share, we'd love to hear from you! Join our talent community and be a part of the conversation that's shaping the future of startups and diversity. For more information, reach out to talent@m13.co.

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