Find out more about unconscious bias in staff recruitment.

In the Introduction to unconscious bias video, Katie Oates (HR Development Partner for Talent, and Chartered Psychologist) briefly mentioned bias in the staff recruitment and selection process.

Making changes to our working practices enables us to mitigate unconscious bias, rather than relying on individuals to check their own unconscious biases and assumptions, which can (and do) let us down. Examples of bias in recruitment are highlighted in the Equality Challenge Unit’s (2013) literature review, Unconscious Bias and Higher Education, which covers a wide range of research literature on unconscious bias:

Shortlisting white British names

Commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions, Wood et al’s (2009) research found that applicants with typically white British names are more likely to be shortlisted for jobs than those with names associated with minority ethnic backgrounds. Sixteen applications were needed from ethnic minority applicants compared to nine from white applicants ie 74% more, to secure the same outcome - a call to interview.

Gender bias in psychologist recruitment 

Steinpreis et al’s (1999) study indicated that both male and female psychologists were more likely to want to employ a male early career researcher than a female, given equal qualifications on CV.  

Gender bias in science recruitment

Moss-Racusin et al’s (2012) study showed that staff in a science faculty rated male applicants higher than female applicants for a laboratory manager role, and also chose a higher starting salary for male candidates. They also indicated that female academics in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine departments were as likely to discriminate against female candidates in employment as male colleagues.


The report makes various recommendations to reduce unconscious bias, including ensuring organisations have positive representations of black and minority ethnic leaders and female leaders in senior positions, ensuring a more diverse workforce in middle and senior management, diversifying guest lecturers, diversifying conference and seminar speakers, and using diverse images in marketing materials and websites.  

You may notice that the University of York has built such actions into many of its strategies and working practices, for example, unconscious bias observer schemes, the use of gender decoders, gender balance on recruitment panels, and positive action statements - check out the further information section for links to relevant policies, literature, link schemes, and tools both inside and outside the University.

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Equality and Diversity Office
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Matt Ramm: recruitment issues

Matt Ramm, HR Services Manager, covers a range of recruitment issues where bias might be prevalent in people and processes that lead to candidate selection.

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Matt Ramm, HR Services Manager, on ways to avoid bias in recruitment and selection.

Matt Ramm, HR Services Manager: Bias in recruitment and selection

Matt covers a range of ways to avoid bias in recruitment and selection.

Job advert wording can be improved to appeal to a wider audience. For example, we may not want to put qualifications right at the top of the list of a job advert or on a person specification, as this might discourage people from applying who don’t come from academic backgrounds, but who might have relevant experience gained elsewhere.  

Job flexibility, including home working and hybrid working, can open the recruitment pool to a wider range of people, for example, people who don’t live locally, or people with caring responsibilities.  

Research indicates male-gendered language in job adverts can deter women from applying (see the Gaucher et al, 2011, and the People Management article, in the links section).  

You may also want to check out the Gender Decoder, which can help you identify gendered language in job adverts. Asking for lengthy experience might similarly convey an ageist approach. The key is to think flexibly, and think about who might feel excluded when you are advertising.

Advertise jobs in places to enable a wide range of people to see the advertisement. Online social networks and interest groups might offer an opportunity to get your message out to people who otherwise might not see it, and increase applicant diversity.

It is important that all recruitment panels are gender balanced (see HR Recruitment guidance). However, you may want to think more broadly than gender balance and include as diverse a range of staff as possible (also see the video featuring Leonie Jones about the unconscious bias observer scheme below). 

Ensure that shortlisting panel members are able to score candidates independently before meeting as a group to decide on the final shortlist, to ensure that more dominant voices don’t take over. 

Compare the characteristics of people who apply for positions to those who are actually called to interview - are interviewees representative of the people who applied?  

Providing interview questions before the interview may enable candidates to demonstrate their experience better, rather than demonstrate their ability to give a good interview, which can be beneficial for neurodiverse people, but also to other candidates too.

Anonymising applications so that you are not swayed by personal characteristics, gender, age, where applicants live etc may also help to avoid bias, for example, see Wood et al (2009) regarding greater propensity to call people to interview who have white British names.

So, my name is Matt Ramm.  I am the HR Services and Compliance Manager at the University of York

I'm going to talk to you a little bit about the wording and what we can do to make our adverts appeal to as wide range of candidates as possible.

The first thing is really what you're choosing to advertise and the elements of the role that you're choosing to bring up to the front to hit candidates as soon as they see your opportunity.

You need to be careful of including things like qualifications that might be desirable right at the front, as this is quite often the first thing candidates will see of your vacancy and they can form an opinion and it could potentially exclude candidates that maybe haven't come through traditional educational background.

Other things that you can think about is actually flexibility in terms of working practices. Quite often it's easy as a recruiting manager to just go out and advertise exactly the same as you have before. But obviously since COVID pandemic, all the rest of it, there is more flexibility in terms of home working, hybrid working, and that opens up your market pool quite a bit to candidates that potentially have caring responsibilities, candidates that are maybe not based in the immediate sort of like locality. 

The second thing is really about how you go about phrasing those requirements.  So think very, very carefully about the language that you use. Quite often language can have connotations, be it gender, age and all of that sort of stuff can come into play. Research has shown that female candidates in particular are much less likely to apply for a role that has male biased words.

There are also things like, experience requirements which can come across to candidates as though they've got an age discrimination element as well.  So just be really careful about the words that you're using in the advert. 

The next thing, once you've decided what you're advertising and how you're going to talk about  is where you're going to advertise it. Nowadays, there's a lot of different online media options available to use, social networks, interest groups that can all be used to target certain specific members or potential candidates that can help increase the diversity of applicants.

The HR's guidance is that you should have a gender balance on your recruitment panel. But you really could think a lot broader than this. Are there particular groups that  you're looking to apply? Are there diversities within your staff group of kind of like people that will be available to assess candidates?

The other thing to think about is actually, it's really important that each panel member gets the opportunity to score independently before you come together as a group.  The point and the purpose of this is to try and help control some of those dominant personalities, groupthink or unconscious bias creeping into your actual assessment.

The other thing that you can use is also data,in relation to the characteristics of the candidates that you have had. Is the pool of candidates that you're pulling through to each round of your selection, actually representative of the pool that you started off with? Often it's small numbers for a lot of recruitment campaigns, but being aware of this and challenging yourself on this is always a good move.

So best practice in relation to promoting EDI in recruitment is an area that is constantly changing.

One of the things that has been around for a long time is looking at things like anonymous application forms, and that's really about reducing down the information that you have to make sure that the assessment is based on the fundamental skills and requirements of the role rather than additional information which potentially isn't relevant, such as candidate gender, what do they look like, where do they live, and it's not relevant to how well  they can perform in the role.

One of the things that we're seeking  to improve in HR is recently we've started providing candidates with the questions before interview.  The purpose there really was to help candidates with neurodiversities, where we know that this can be beneficial,but what we found is it helps everyone. 

What we're trying to do there is we're trying to focus our attention, actually, to the examples that they give and how that demonstrates the behaviours and skills that we're looking for, rather than assess their ability to give a good interview, which quite often isn't relevant to the role at all.

Dr Leonie Jones: the unconscious bias observer scheme

Dr Leonie Jones, Employability and Diversity Officer in the Department of Chemistry, introduces the work our Chemistry department undertook to develop the unconscious bias observer scheme - which has since been adopted by other departments too.  

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Dr Leonie Jones on the Unconscious Bias Observer Scheme.

Leonie talks about the Unconscious Bias Observer Scheme that the Department of Chemistry developed after reading the Moss-Racusin (2012) paper that showed bias against employing female lab managers based on name alone.  

Staff members in the Department of Chemistry have undergone unconscious bias observer training, and take part in recruitment and promotion interviews, providing feedback to interview panels on possible sources of inherent bias. This means that tackling unconscious bias is not solely down to the individuals on the panel being aware of their biases (though this is important), because countering bias has been built into the interview process itself.

Feedback from panel members is that the presence of the unconscious bias observer has been beneficial, helps them to be aware of potential bias, and based on this success the scheme has been used in recruitment across a range of staff groups and roles, including PhD recruitment.  

Chemistry’s unconscious bias observer scheme web page explains how the scheme works, and includes a paper which gives more detail. While the University does not have a University-wide observer scheme in place, other departments are welcome to adopt it, and some already have.


I'm Leonie Jones. I'm the Employability and Diversity Officer in the Department of Chemistry here at the University of York, and I'm here to talk about our unconscious bias observer scheme.

The reason the scheme was developed was following the 2012 Moss-Racusin paper, which showed that when academic staff were asked to shortlist applicants for a lab manager position, that simply changing the gender of the applicant impacted the results of the recruitment.

And that was very shocking to the department. So this gave the department the idea that unconscious bias was something that we really needed to consider in recruitment, and the unconscious bias observer scheme was born from that.

So the idea of the scheme is that a trained observer observes both the shortlisting and the interview process,reflecting back to the panel's instances of bias, and that's in the moment of decision making. And that's a really important point, and it helps to get over some of the limitations that we're aware of in unconscious bias training.

So we've had feedback from panels to say that actually they can find it really helpful. They've suggested that it makes them feel more thoughtful and also more confident in their decisions.

But it's really important for the success of the observer scheme, for it to be a constructive and a positive relationship so that panels feel supported rather than being watched or checked up on.

And so really, it's a collaborative partnership between the panel and the observer.

The process has been rolled out across all different staff group recruitments and then subsequently to PhD recruitment in the department as well and that's been a really positive thing, as it helps to reassure the candidates as well as the panels.

Bias doesn’t end with recruitment - there are all sorts of reasons why we might have limited diversity in our staff groups at senior levels, or in particular academic fields - so you might also want to check out the section on staff progression and retention.

Katie Oates (University of York, HR Development Partner) provides a great overview of the ORCE method of assessment in recruitment and selection, and how we can overcome typical biases that we may encounter during the recruitment process.

Gaucher et al (2011) outline studies on gendered language in jobs adverts, how they can be associated with gendered job roles, and how this affects how appealing jobs are to male and female candidates. Male dominated professions tend to use more masculine words in their job adverts, so they can perpetuate attraction of male applicants to an already male dominated field. They also provide a list of gender-coded words in the article’s appendix. Following Gaucher, O’Brien et al (2022) undertook a related study in the field of emergency medicine in America, and found masculine-coded language in job adverts for positions which tend to be male dominated.

The Gender Decoder builds on the work of Gaucher et al, and allows you to enter job advert wording into the decoder to identify any masculine or feminine words, which you could alter to form more gender-neutral wording and reduce gender bias.

University of York HR pages contain information on the requirements for shortlisting and interview panels and the University’s Recruitment Policy.

HR pages also contain job description templates that can be used when recruiting. They encourage the consideration of alternative qualifications and professional experience. To check equality and diversity characteristics of applicants against those called to interview, you can contact the HR recruitment team via  

The University’s Recruitment Policy outlines the sorts of positive action we are able to take when recruiting, to encourage people to apply who are under-represented in the University:

‘Positive Action’ is lawful under the Equality Act 2010 and refers to the steps that an employer can take to encourage applicants from people who share a protected characteristic (eg a certain gender or race) who are under-represented in a particular area of the workforce, for example:

  • placing advertisements in the minority ethnic press, the women's press and any other publication which is targeted at groups which are under-represented
  • including statements in advertisements that encourage individuals from under-represented groups to apply for the advertised position

HR’s equality and diversity recruitment webpage covers various forms of discrimination (age and disability discrimination in particular), positive action, and genuine occupational requirements, among other topics.

Complete your learning

Now that you've learnt more about this topic, go to the LMS and complete the quiz to demonstrate your learning. 

You might also like to complete an action plan to record anything that you intend to take back to your department or service area for discussion.

Contact us

Equality and Diversity Office
+44 (0)1904 324680