How to avoid unconscious bias when recruiting in the travel trade

Lack of diversity is a recognised problem in the travel industry. Could one of the main causes be unconscious bias by those recruiting in the travel trade?

Unconscious bias is a theory that can’t be dismissed. In 1998 a test was devised to assess people’s unconscious (or implicit) bias – the Implicit-Association Test (IAT). Since then, many companies have formulated training videos or workshops for their staff to try and eliminate unconscious bias by getting workers to recognise it in themselves and act to change their patterns of behaviour. Both Facebook and Google train staff in recognising and overcoming unconscious bias.

The reasons these big corUnconscious bias and recruiting in the travel tradeporations take the issue of unconscious bias seriously is that there is proof that more diversity leads to more profit. It’s also a no-brainer for creating a more equal society and the big tech companies want to be forward-thinking. Back in 2015, a McKinsey study showed that culturally diverse companies are 35% more likely to outperform their competitors, and companies with a good gender balance are 15% more likely to beat the competition. And it’s not just companies taking notice, The United States Department of Justice also educates employees on how to actively avoid unconscious bias.

Recruitment is an obvious sector where unconscious bias can have a negative effect, but I feel there isn’t enough knowledge across the travel trade about why diversity is good for business.

When my team and I are recruiting in the travel trade, we actively avoid clients who show conscious bias – not uncommon in some parts of the world. I will happily refuse a client who shows any form of racism or sexism or other prejudice in what they’re asking us to do.

I have written about lack of diversity in the travel industry before, stating that only one in 33 leaders in the travel, hospitality and leisure industries in the UK identifying as being from a black, Asian or minority ethnic (Bame) background, as compared to 1 in 8 in the UK population. We suggest that to avoid constantly recruiting from the same pool, we as an industry should start to deliberately dissociate from unconscious (or conscious) bias. The following starting points might be worth a discussion with colleagues in your travel trade company.

Starting points for how to avoid unconscious bias in travel recruitment

Definition Make sure your team understands what unconscious bias is. Wiki gives a good definition of unconscious or implicit bias as ‘the name for learned stereotypes that are automatic, unintentional, deeply ingrained, universal, and able to influence behaviour’.

This You Tube video also explains unconscious bias in simple visual terms.

Test yourself Anyone can take Harvard University’s online Implicit-Association Test (IAT) here. There are various categories, testing for bias about race, weight, gender, age, country of origin, sexuality, and skin-tone. There is some controversy about the test, recognised on the website – but in general it is a good way to start thinking about unconscious bias and getting people to recognise it in themselves. The test also allows for feedback from each person taking it, and it can be done anonymously.

Unconscious bias - how it affects recruiting in the travel tradeQuestion yourself It’s easy to assume you’re not biased – but the whole problem with unconscious bias is that it’s unconscious. Do you have certain things you assume about people with particular accents for example? Or do you feel that women are better at certain tasks than men. Society often thinks women will be more empathetic or better at multi-tasking, and that men are more assertive leaders, for example. We are all biased – and we need to recognise our bias to stop it having a detrimental effect.

Recruit more creatively I’ve long said that experience shouldn’t be the only consideration in recruitment. I’m a huge supporter of recruiting outside the usual pool – read my blog here about recruiting creatively and why you should consider flexible working for those often overlooked – eg older people and working mothers. My co-director Fiona Morrison-Arnthal has recently been recruiting from outside the travel industry for forward-thinking hospitality technology companies. Her clients didn’t just want hospitality tech people; their priorities were for fast-paced, non-corporate, eager, and ambitious candidates, over direct experience.

recruiting for the travel trade and how to avoid unconscious biasDon’t have an ideal candidate This goes with the idea of recruiting more creatively. We find that many internal recruiters haven’t had a proper brief from the recruiting manager so are looking for people who match a documented ‘ideal candidate’. This is recruiting on the safe side, and these people will automatically have an obvious bias towards this ‘ideal candidate’. We suggest that this won’t get you the best candidates. Better to let an expert travel recruiter have more flexibility to bring in new types of people to the industry.

Watch your words As a specialist travel recruitment company we tend to iron out revealing words in how we post jobs (and a lot of our placements come from headhunting and executive search anyway), and we also use sophisticated data to aid the recruitment process. Some young fun companies might go for words such as ‘ninja’ or ‘rockstar’ in a job post, which have been shown to attract more men than women. The company Textio can help refine what you say to eliminate bias.

Avoid unconscious and conscious bias when recruiting for the travel tradeRefuse obvious bias Some old-school companies and hiring managers can show obvious bias – though to them it may be unconscious, born of old-fashioned and ingrained attitudes. As recruiters, it’s our job to point this out and state that it’s not acceptable, from ageism to sexism and any other prejudice. Just say no – the client isn’t always right.

Use a specialist to assess CVs The way we assess CVs is to use systems to actively eliminate bias. A shocking 2003 study showed obvious racism in favour of white-sounding names in recruitment. Times may have moved on a bit since then, but unconscious bias is certainly still present in many areas of life so will be present in recruitment. With systems in place to stop this happening, we can make sure that unconscious bias is eliminated from processing CVs.


unconsious bias when recruiting in the travel industryUnconscious bias is something that’s now a mainstream theory and can’t be dismissed. In 2019 Caroline Criado Perez wrote Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, which shows that the whole world has been touched by unconscious bias, from seatbelt design to medicine development. Let’s all start to clean up our own shop by addressing unconscious bias when recruiting in the travel trade. Now is the time to create a more equal and fairer workplace in travel.



Recruiting in the travel trade? Want to make sure you’re recruiting in a way that creates a fairer industry? Connect with me on LinkedIn here.

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