How Agencies Can Fight Against Implicit Biases When Hiring

Because otherwise the problem will just get worse

Illustration of people running a race with one that has a bigger lead than others.
The ultimate goal is to create a workforce that looks like our diverse society.
Getty Images

No one starts their hiring process by saying, “Today I’m going to make some biased hiring decisions.” But those decisions happen every day, and the advertising industry—despite some agencies’ best efforts—remains far too homogenous, with some groups significantly underrepresented.

One reason bias is so pervasive is that it’s part of human nature. It’s a byproduct of the way people form categories and make sense of the world. But in the workplace, bias is like a disease, and it’s only going to get worse unless companies take deliberate steps to address it.

Here are three areas where unconscious bias has the biggest effect on hiring decisions and how agencies can fight back.

Referral programs

In theory, referral programs are a powerful hiring tool. They give agencies critical information about applicants, and they reward current employees for networking. But all too often, referrals become a way for agencies to keep hiring people from the same social circles.

In the workplace, bias is like a disease, and it’s only going to get worse unless companies take deliberate steps to address it.

Instead, hiring managers should treat referrals as one part of a broader approach to building a talent pipeline. This means that even if you have a great referral come in, you should still conduct comprehensive, formal job searches and openly post official job descriptions for available roles. Explain to employees that referrals should be considered a way to welcome underrepresented people into the industry. When you ask them to send in candidates, remind them of the agency’s goal to increase the representation of key groups. Increasing diversity in recruitment pipelines should be everyone’s shared responsibility.

Interview feedback

We’ve all been there: A candidate comes in for a series of interviews, and after they leave, every person who met with them gathers in the conference room to offer their review. Cue the group dynamic. The loudest voice in the room dominates, most people stay silent, and soon, everyone else is nodding along.

To get objective, honest feedback on candidates, check in with interviewers individually. Some organizations do it via email, while others use applicant tracking software. Either way, every interviewer should provide feedback about the candidate independently without creating an opportunity to be swayed by their colleagues. Use the qualifications described in the job description as a standard of measurement, and make sure all of the interviewers base their feedback on those qualifications. That doesn’t mean you can’t leave room for unique experiences and diverse skill sets, but be sure all of the feedback relates back to the candidate’s ability to do the job at hand.

Starting salary

Starting salary is the biggest driver of the pay gap in the U.S., and unconscious bias is often reflected explicitly in starting salaries. Asking prospective hires for their salary history often perpetuates the gender pay gap (and in many areas, including New York, is also illegal). It’s fine to ask for salary expectations, but even that shouldn’t be your only criteria when you’re considering making an offer. Instead, you should establish a clear salary structure with bands for each role that factor in things like tenure and specific qualifications. Agencies should also gather as much intelligence about industry-wide salary levels as possible, keeping in mind that some of those sources may themselves reflect biases in pay levels. You could also consider HR analytics software, which can help you track pay disparity across the company.

For all three parameters, the strategies vary but the ultimate objective is the same: fairer hiring decisions and a workforce that looks less like the advertising industry of a decade ago and more like society at large.

Recommended articles