6 min read

What Is Attribution Bias In Recruitment?

Rachel Buchanan
Rachel Buchanan February 21, 2023
what is attribution bias in recruitment

Hiring the best talent is crucial to a successful recruitment process and to do this means an active consideration of avoiding bias. Businesses with more diverse workforces are happier, more productive and report increased employee well-being.

Many forms of bias might become a detrimental issue in the recruitment process, all of which largely come under the term unconscious bias. Being aware of the various kinds of unconscious bias can assist organizations to review and make improvements to their processes.

One such type of bias is attribution bias, which this article will explore further, in particular how it affects recruitment and how organizations can avoid attribution bias.

what is attribution bias in recruitment

What is attribution bias?

Attribution bias is a form of cognitive thinking. When an individual unconsciously assesses the behavior or actions of another to make a judgment we attribute the cause of that behavior to external factors (e.g. related to circumstances or situation) or internal (e.g. personality or other characteristics).

An individual is essentially more likely to assume why someone has behaved in a specific way based on predetermined factors (their personality or other characteristics) rather than taking into account the scenario, environment, or specific situation. For example, if someone cuts in front of you in line for the train in the morning, an individual is more likely to blame another's inherent personality traits (they're rude) than take into account the specific circumstances of the event (perhaps they are running late).

This is referred to as attribution bias, and can lead to an inaccurate analysis of an individual's behavior based on potential errors or unconscious assumptions, and can be perpetuated, leading to a possible tainted perception of all future behaviors of that individual.

Attribution bias leads to highly subjective inferences, drawing on an individual's previous experiences and biased conclusions to assess new behaviors and situations. It is also largely an unconscious bias and may even run contrary to how someone believes that they interpret behavior. Thus, it is important that all those involved with the recruitment process understand attribution bias and why they should be careful about not perpetuating unhelpful assumptions.

What are the types of attribution bias?

There are several different types of attribution bias, some of which can be summarized as follows:

Fundamental attribution error

This is where an individual sees their behavior as influenced by external forces but still attributes the behavior of others to internal factors. The weighting is not constant or equal, essentially giving yourself a more forgiving attitude whilst failing to extend this to others.

Self-serving bias

This is where an individual can take credit for their successes but not for their failures, essentially attributing positive outcomes to internal characteristics and attributing negative outcomes to external factors.

Hostile attribution bias

This is where the behavior of others is (often unfairly) characterized as hostile or deliberate when the opposite is more likely to be true.

How does attribution bias affect recruitment?

Unconscious bias will always affect decision-making in recruitment so it is crucial for all staff in an organization responsible for any stage of the employment or recruitment process to carry out regular training to ensure that it is front of mind to attempt to make decisions free from bias.

If there are too many decisions being made within the hiring process that are subject to attribution bias, distorted judgments will be made and may be hindering the hiring of the best candidates. If the best available talent is not progressing through the process, the ultimate decision-making will be flawed and can lead to unbalanced and poorly performing teams.

The following are ways in which attribution bias can affect recruitment specifically.

Reviewing and shortlisting applications

Resumes by their very nature are two-dimensional portraits of the applicants and recruiters may infer an impression of the candidate based on their attribution bias. HR managers might apply their readings of included details and attribute unfairly to imagined personal characteristics and as at this stage the candidate cannot offer further details or a rebuttal, this might mean good candidates do not reach the next stage of the process.

At interview

The concern here is that interviewers conclude without properly interrogating the situation or circumstances fully, resulting in making assumptions and dismissing individuals unnecessarily. The interviewer's attribution bias might unfairly jump to a negative conclusion without all the information.

At decision-making

As with the interview stage, the concern here is that the best available talent might not have been selected, and the decision-making stage may be flawed by attribution bias during the decision-making process.

attribution bias in recruitment

How can you avoid attribution bias in recruitment?


Training is the first key to avoiding attribution bias in recruitment, as increased awareness of the fact that it happens will in theory reduce the occurrences and lead to a more deliberate and thoughtful conclusion with a wider and more diverse pool of the best talent being recruited by the organization.

Help staff working in the recruitment process to routinely ask themselves "is this conclusion based on assumption or information"? By continually asking and interrogating your own methods of conclusion, you can train yourself, and therefore others, to at the very least be alert to the issue.

Re-consider the recruitment process

The next stage is to ensure that the recruitment process is designed with the reduction of attribution bias in mind. A top-to-bottom consideration of the whole process will be required, and then solved by a deliberate reduction of the touch points by which an individual has an opportunity to leap to a conclusion that might be affected by attribution bias.

Reduce reliance on resumes

Consider whether there may be other ways of shortlisting applicants rather than an individual reading and interpreting resumes. Consider using application forms, requested samples of work, and other shortlisting aptitude tests to make an initial stage that is as free from bias as possible.

Ask behavior-based questions

Be mindful at the interview as to which wording of questions might invite answers which can be interpreted through an attribution bias lens. Try asking behavior-based questions that will provide more objective and situational-based information from the candidate, which will reduce the level of attribution bias required by the interviewer.

For example, an interviewer might have seen on a candidate's resume that they have held several short-term positions in the last two years. Instead of assuming why that might be (because they are unable to hold down a job for example), the interviewer should be able to ask about the reasoning or factors behind leaving each of the positions.

Rachel Buchanan
Rachel Buchanan February 21, 2023

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