Removing unconscious bias from recruitment

Ibi Evans | Talent Aquisition Specialist

In recent years, the recruitment world has become increasingly aware of how unconscious biases can influence their processes and practices. This has led to some brilliant work being done globally to eliminate bias.

But first, what is unconscious bias?

Whether we realise it or not, we all have biases. Psychologists describe unconscious bias as ‘people preferences’, because by nature we can favour people who look like us, sound like us or have the same interests as us. In fact, findings from a study conducted by researchers at Northwestern University, showed bias is already present in children as young as 4 and 5 years old.

So, let’s look at a few statistics. Did you know that on average 77 jobs are submitted every second on LinkedIn? Or that there are currently 6,202 roles advertised on the Indeed ****job site? How about the fact that if you’re currently seeking a remote role in the UK, you are spoiled for choice with the the option of 59,807 available roles ?!

In short, the current job market is pretty saturated - yet despite what seems like a wealth of choice, certain minority groups still experience discrimination when trying to find employment. For example, according to research from Oxford University, candidates in the UK are up to 60% less likely to receive a call back for a job if they have a ‘foreign sounding’ name.

At Cuckoo, we are working hard to craft a recruitment journey that eliminates unconscious bias as much as possible. Of course there’s always more work to do, but here are some of the things we’ve put in place to make a great start!

Language is key

Words really matter, and they have the power to include or exclude. Whether it’s text for our careers page or a specific job advert, we select our words carefully to reduce the chance of deterring or disqualifying potential candidates.

🛑 We Avoid

  • Unnecessary requirements. For example ‘5+ years experience’.
  • Phrases like ‘young and ambitious’, or (on the other hand) ‘mature’.
  • Complicated and exclusive jargon and terminology.

👍 We Include

  • Our diversity statement, so that it’s clear we welcome all people .
  • Phrases that don’t unintentionally deter people, but rather encourage them to still apply, such as: ‘It’d be great if you also had’ or ‘We know that not every candidate will meet all of the above requirements, but we’d still love to hear from you if you’re interested in our vacancy’.
  • Inviting language that is friendly and conversational, and that can be easily digested and understood.

We also take extra care when it comes to the types of adjectives that we use. Research from Gaucher, Friesen and Kay (2011), shows that ‘gendered wording’ in job adverts sustains gender inequality. Including words in job adverts that are generally associated with women, such as: interpersonal, empathetic, warm, collaborative, enthusiastic and loyal, or words that are typically associated with men, such as: confident, driven, impulsive, ambitious, and determined, can strongly suggest that certain roles would be more suited to a particular gender and so encourages discrimination.

Blind Reviews

After a role has gone live and the applications begin to roll in, the first stage in our recruitment journey is shortlisting. At this stage, we’re aiming to see suitable work experience, and/or strong transferable skills. We know simple information such as a candidate’s name can strongly suggest potential discriminatory factors like age, gender or ethnicity. So we use a setting on our Applicant Tracking System (we use TeamTailor) called ‘anonymous mode’. Anonymous mode conceals all applicants personal information and any images, and gives them a fun pseudonym (see below). This helps us to keep the focus on what truly matters. If we decide to shortlist the candidate and progress them to the screening stage, their personal information is then revealed.

📞 Screening calls

Screening calls are a great way to find out more about a candidate and to introduce them to Cuckoo’s culture and values. All of our screening calls take place virtually. We carry out these 15-minute informal chats as audio only , and specifically instruct applicants in advance not to enable their videos. We recognise that someone’s physical appearance can influence (both negatively and positively) our decision making due to the biases we all have, so keeping this stage as audio only encourages us to focus on whether we feel they align with our culture and values and if they have the correct skillset/transferable skills for the role. Each screening call also follows the same structure to ensure consistency and fairness to all candidates.

💻 Take-home tasks

For some of our roles, we ask candidates to complete a role specific task. We make sure that all of the selected candidates are given the same brief and the same amount of time to complete this. When all tasks have been submitted, we carry out a blind review. This means we remove any names or identifying factors before the hiring manager reviews the task.

So what’s Next?

At Cuckoo we are always pushing to do more, and to be better than we already are. Although we know we have worked hard to remove unconscious bias from our recruitment process - we also recognise that there’s still a way to go. Here are some of the things we are still working on:

📣 More diverse platforms

There are some brilliant job sites and platforms that exist to create opportunities for minority groups. We aim to advertise our roles on these sites, to truly reach a more diverse pool of talent.

🧠 Considering accessibility

For neurodiverse individuals, there may be elements of our recruitment process that they find challenging. This doesn’t negate their ability to do the role they have applied for, it just means that they may require some accommodations to ensure the process is fair for them. As such, we are currently reviewing our take-home task and competency interview stages.

We’re removing any barriers that prevent us from attracting and sourcing great people. As a business we want our team to be a true reflection of the society that we live in, and we know that goes beyond how we build our recruitment process.

If you have any thoughts on all of this, or would like to make any suggestions about our recruitment process, we’d love to hear from you.

More from Cuckoo


How to interview well at Cuckoo

Interviewing for new roles can be a daunting and nerve-wracking experience. If you have numerous interviews on the horizon - feeling prepared to put your best foot forward can feel overwhelming - especially when you’re not sure what to expect.


Shaping our new Cuckoo values

Imagine bringing together over 300 people from different companies, cultures, backgrounds and experiences into one new company. How do you get those people to feel like one? Well, you ask them one simple question: What values do you want to have to make you feel like you belong at Cuckoo? .


My first day at Cuckoo

Well, I can’t really talk about my first day at Cuckoo without prefacing it with how it came to be…

How fast can you go?