How to avoid unconscious bias in job ads
Increasing diversity and addressing gender imbalance in the workplace has been a focus for most hirers in recent years, but many businesses still struggle to attract a broad pool of candidates.

When it comes to increasing workplace diversity, the first step any hirer can take is to look at how they create job advertisements. While writing an inclusive job advertisement may seem straight forward, unconscious bias through tone or phrasing that skews towards cultural, gender or industry stereotypes can significantly limit the pool of applicants. As noted by SEEK Structured Data Curator, Emma Haslip, in Tackling the gender gap in the technology sector even a long list of criteria can create bias, with studies showing women tend to only apply for a role if they meet all criteria, while men will apply if they meet at least 50 per cent of criteria.

By definition, unconscious bias is difficult to pinpoint and address. It’s so ingrained it is often seen as an automatic response or simply a preference, but is actually influenced by an individual’s background, cultural environment and personal experience.

So with this in mind, how can hirers recognise and address unconscious bias to ensure job advertisements are inclusive but still compelling?

Don’t underestimate the impact of language and tone

Use clear and concise language, and while it sounds obvious, ensure key terms and criteria are not gender specific – for example, choose ‘spokesperson’ instead of ‘spokesman’. Consider whether words with masculine overtones like ‘strong’ or ‘ambitious’ are necessary and, if they are, try to balance with inclusive words like ‘resilient’ or ‘excellent’.

Senior Manager – Human Resources, Marco Sicurella from Teachers Mutual Bank, one of 90 organisations named 2015 Employer of Choice for Gender Equality by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, says it’s vital to be aware of tone and language.

“Using non-gender specific language not only helps avoid bias, it also signals to candidates your organisation’s desire to be inclusive and seek a diverse range of candidates,” Sicurella said.

“Look for patterns or phrases that are repeated or emphasised throughout your job advertisements and assess if they promote negative or positive bias towards particular groups or candidates.”

Terms like ‘up and coming’ or ‘go getter’ can create a bias against mature aged candidates, while ‘must have strong knowledge of Australian industry practices’, may discourage international applicants whereas ‘required knowledge of national industry practices’ is more inclusive.

Kerri O’Connor, Director at Saunders Lynn & Co, has been working in recruitment for 16 years, and said broad statements about availability should also be avoided.

“I’ve seen a job advertisement that stated ‘must be available seven days and public holidays with a rotating roster.’ This asks unrealistic flexibility for people that might be a great hire for this business,” she explained. “Instead, be specific and state how many hours a week you’d like to employ someone, include what days are hardest to fill and ask for availability at those times. This is much more inclusive and will encourage a diverse range of applicants.

“Keep in mind what actually needs to be achieved by the person in the role and you’ll have a clear benchmark of what you are looking for, rather than a stereotype.”

Be clear about diversity

By contrast, detailing your organisation’s workplace culture and commitment to creating a diverse and inclusive workplace can increase the appeal of your job advertisements.

“The danger of not speaking to the broader lifestyle of a candidate is that you risk creating a form of bias against candidates who want to balance work with other life goals, such as looking after their family, studying or engaging with their religious or cultural practices,” Sicurella said.

O’Connor agrees that selling your company culture can help avoid bias. “For example, if an employer has flexible start and finish times then make that known. This will appeal to working parents but will also appeal to early risers, and people who prefer to skip traffic and arrive a bit later and work later. Inclusiveness means you’ll have a bigger pool of candidates to choose from.”

Top tips for creating inclusive job advertisement copy:

  • Ensure key position terms are not gender specific
  • Use clear and concise language, be aware of tone
  • Check your advertisement for patterns or phrases that are repeated or emphasised and assess if they promote negative or positive, bias towards particular groups or candidates
  • Implement a review process to pick up language, tone or structure that is biased or exclusive
  • Be clear about your organisation’s goals around diversity and outline this in the copy