Addressing Bias in Job Postings to Create a More Inclusive Hiring Process

Do your organization’s hiring practices unintentionally exclude qualified candidates? If your organization has made a commitment to DEI, then your commitment should include an assessment of your organization’s hiring processes to ensure you are not missing out on qualified candidates. Instituting diversity and inclusion practices within your hiring process means that you are taking active steps to ensure procedures and best practices are in place to reduce bias of potential candidates’ age, race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and other personal characteristics that are unrelated to their qualifications or job performance. This is not a step to simply hire more diverse candidates, but rather look at what needs to be done to attract the most qualified applicant pool without regard to personal characteristics.

How an employer approaches the hiring process can be telling to potential candidates. Is the organization’s commitment to DEI genuine or just window dressing? Poorly written job descriptions, for example, can signal to a candidate not only that a hiring process is non-inclusive, but that a work environment is potentially non-inclusive as well. For instance, the language used in your organization’s job descriptions can subtly send messages to potential candidates about your organization. This can include messages about the organization’s current workforce, culture, and environment. Having an inclusive workplace starts with writing inclusive job descriptions. For those organizations focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, eliminating unconscious bias from the hiring process is key to showing your commitment to these efforts and attracting a diverse workforce.

A job description is an essential part of the application process, for both the applicant and the organization. Prospective candidates are using them to determine whether their skill sets are right for the job, whether they would want to do the job, and whether the job is a right fit for them. News flash: for most, job descriptions are not just skimmed over by potential candidates before deciding to apply. In fact, a 2018 survey conducted by The Muse, a jobs search platform, found that 55% of respondents, “consider job descriptions to be among the most helpful things when deciding if a company is a good fit for them.” If over half of potential job seekers find job descriptions that helpful, the time spent carefully crafting a job description will pay dividends when you receive interest from a more qualified and diverse candidate pool.

Choose Your Words Wisely

Language can play a powerful role in contributing to and eliminating bias. Using inclusive language in your job description is a key best practice to follow. A simple way to make your job description more inclusive is to avoid using gender-specific pronouns. Instead of “he or she,” use the term “they.” In the alternative, try using the term “you” within the description. Example: “As a litigation associate for XYZ Law Firm, you will…” this allows the potential applicant to envision themselves in the position.

Additionally, using biased language can cause qualified applicants to pull themselves out of the pool, simply because of the words or phrases used. For instance, studies have shown that certain words can discourage women, people of color, and older candidates from applying. An often-cited example of biased language in job descriptions is the use of gender-coded words. A 2011 study published by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that if a job description was coded too heavily toward one gender, it will make the job seem less appealing to others. Take for instance the masculine-coded words such as competitive, strong, and dominate. The study showed that words such as these made a job seem less appealing to female candidates. In addition to gender-coded words, words like fast-paced and fast-moving can also deter candidates of a certain age from applying, as these words can be perceived as applying to a younger candidate pool.

You also want to pay attention to the phrasing of listed job requirements. For instance, requiring that a candidate must be able to “talk with prospective clients about their legal concerns,” is not as inclusive as “communicate with prospective clients about their legal concerns.” Requiring a candidate to “be able to lift 15 lbs”—if this is even essential to the job, but more on that below—is not as inclusive as saying, “move items weighing up to 15 lbs.” While these differences might seem subtle, it can mean a lot to a potential candidate on whether your organization has a culture for inclusivity.

Tools are available to help flag the biased language in your job descriptions. Gender-Decoder is a free online tool inspired by the 2011 published study on gender-coding. It searches for words found to be gender-coded, then calculates the relative proportion of masculine-coded and feminine-coded words to reach an overall verdict on the gender-coding of the job description. A paid service, like Textio or Ongig, can also be helpful in spotting and removing gender, racial, age, and disability-biased language that can unintentionally narrow your candidate pool, potentially causing you to miss out on a great new hire.

Avoid Excessive and Unnecessary Requirements

In addition to paying close attention to the language used in your job descriptions, also review the requirements listed for the position. Limiting the number of qualifications in a job description is another important way to mitigate bias. Evaluate your job descriptions to determine if you are asking for far more skills and qualifications than are actually needed. Ultimately, if you ask for unnecessary skills, experiences, and training, you will narrow your candidate pool, cutting out diverse applicants, and missing out on talented applicants that could fulfill the role of the position successfully.

You might already be familiar with the often-quoted statistic from an internal Hewlett-Packard report—men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them. The more required skills you have listed that are not necessary to the job, the more likely a potential qualified candidate is to exclude themselves from the pool, and research shows that unrepresented groups are likely to self-exclude based upon excessive requirements. Instead of using a long list of requirements including skills, experiences, degrees, and levels of seniority when they are not required, focus on what a person needs to do to be successful in the role and for the organization. This approach will expand your potential candidate pool, including qualified candidates with diverse backgrounds and skills.

Take a long look at your recycled job descriptions. Ask yourself if you really need a candidate from a top-tier law school? Ask whether it really takes 10 years of experience in a certain area to do the job, or can some skillsets be learned along the way through training or mentorship? If your organization does internal training, are there some skills that you teach to all new hires anyway? If so, you may not need to list those skills as job requirements. The same goes for management or leadership requirements. What does that look like for your organization? Do you need someone who has five years of management experience or is your organization going to provide the necessary training to help the candidate be successful in managing?

Show Your Commitment to DEI

In addition to outlining what your organization is looking for in a candidate, the job description should also highlight your organization’s core values. Include your organization’s commitment to DEI efforts, but go beyond the blanket “equal opportunity employer” statement. Personalize it by articulating in your organization’s own words what your commitment and practices look like. Adding a simple sentence or two shows that the organization has taken the time to think about this commitment and it is not superficial, especially when you couple it with a lack of biased language and requirements in the job description.

Highlighting your benefits package can also help showcase your commitment, since benefits can play an important role in fostering diversity and inclusion. For instance, if you have a benefits package that includes items such as paid family sick leave, parental leave, or flexible work arrangements then including them in your job description affirms for many candidates an organization’s commitment to their DEI efforts.


When a potential candidate reads a job description before applying, they are evaluating not only the job itself, but also your organization. An inclusive job description allows the applicant to see themselves in the position, and to anticipate working in an environment that creates opportunities of belonging and chances to be successful. A recycled job description that is not carefully reviewed and updated on the other hand, can unintentionally include language that alienates or excludes a potential qualified candidate. Ultimately, the goal of every job description should be to attract top talent to your organization, not dissuade top talent from applying. A job description that is written with inclusivity in mind ensures that qualified applicants do not feel excluded based upon their gender, race or ethnicity, sexual orientation, background, or disability, and increases the likelihood of attracting a more qualified and diverse applicant pool.

About the Author

Danielle Hall is the executive director for the Kansas Lawyers Assistance Program. She is a frequent speaker and author on attorney ethics, well-being, DEI, and technology use in law practice. Contact Danielle on Twitter @Danielle_mHall.

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