The interview continues to be the most relied-on form of recruitment. 57% of respondents to this Murray Resources’ survey said that an interview is the most crucial factor when evaluating a candidate. And while this form of screening is generally a poor way of predicting a candidate’s performance it has another faulty feature – various types of bias that can emerge during interviews

We like to think about ourselves as objective and open-minded people. However, it’s impossible to rid ourselves of all (un)conscious biases – no matter how well-intentioned we are. Daily, we all make approximately one decision every two seconds, which rounds up to around 35,000 decisions a day – most of which we don’t even notice.

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That’s because our brains generally operate within System 1 – the fast, habitual, and automatic way of thinking we discussed in more depth in this post. This coping technique gets us through the day, but it can harm both your company and the candidates when it occurs during a job interview

The recruitment process should be objective, pragmatic, and free from bias – at least in the perfect world. But the world is not perfect, and so aren’t interviews. Being aware of the types of bias that can emerge during an interview is the first step to making the process fair to candidates and beneficial to your company.

Bias in recruitment 

Bias in recruitment emerges in any instance where you form an opinion about a candidate based on an impression or lack of information. We constantly make assumptions based on the information we have, experiences, preferences, background, etc.

Has it ever happened to you that you instantly clicked with a candidate and couldn’t explain why? Maybe it was because they are from your hometown, spoke the language you like, or made a good impression. Impressions we don’t even realise are biased. But in the job interview context, making a biased decision can have long-term consequences for your business down the line because…

(Un)conscious bias can cost you money & talent

Buying a car is a long-term and expensive investment, and getting one solely based on ungrounded assumptions is a risk few want to take. Then why let that happen when hiring a new employee? 

Unconscious bias during an interview is a problem as it can lead your recruiters to make decisions based not on the candidate’s skills, but on assumptions and personal perceptions. That, in turn, can lead to bad hires

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Based on this Harvard Business Review article, as much as 80% of employee turnover stems from bad hires, a fair part of them possibly resulting from unconscious bias. Hiring the wrong person and then starting the process from scratch is a costly and time-consuming process you should avoid.

Moreover, allowing bias to cloud your judgment when hiring can cost you a true talent. 60% of interviewers stated they decide on a candidate’s suitability within 15 minutes. Is that truly enough to test one’s skills? Since we’re currently in times of talent shortage, letting talent walk away for irrational reasons can prove even worse than making a bad hire. 

Recruitment bias is usually referred to when we talk about sexism, ageism, and so on. It can, however, take many different forms. So, let’s have a look at the 50 shades of bias. 

1. Similarity Bias

We, as humans, look for commonalities between us and other people all the time. The same process can emerge during an interview – it’s called similarity bias.

It occurs when a candidate seems much like the interviewer, thus making them believe they’d be the best fit for the job (or because they’d make better co-workers?). In this 2012 research, Rivera demonstrated that similarity is one of the biggest factors influencing attraction during an interview. Meaning, that those candidates similar to the interviewer have a higher chance of being offered the job. 

We tend to favour people with the same interests, personality, style, or background, and it can greatly influence a hiring decision, making us dismiss the truly important factor – skills.  

2. Recency Bias

Our brains are wired to remember most vividly information that was presented to us most recently. In an interview setting, this may lead to recency bias. Since our short-term memory lasts between 15-30 seconds, after hours of interviews you may have a better recollection only of the most recent candidate. 

This may lead to the last applicant you interviewed leaving a disproportionately strong impression on you, and most memorable – for better or worse. At the end of the day, you may not remember the person who impressed you in the morning and make you miss a great addition to the team.

3. Nonverbal Bias

Body language can be extremely easy to misinterpret because it varies from person to person and from culture to culture. As Malcolm Gladwell writes in his book Talking to Strangers, one’s group look of anger is another’s sad face. 

Personal interviews include many nonverbal cues, and if the interviewer puts too much priority on them it may lead to a nonverbal bias. A weak handshake, no eye contact, folded arms. How many times have we heard about the importance of those? Plenty. And for a good reason. As much as 55% of the information we convey comes from our body language. 

But can they be taken as a clear sign of being a good or bad fit for the job? No. The way a person moves through the world may show a thing or two about their personality, but at the end of a day, it’s not indicative of how successful of an employee they might be.

4. Halo & Pitchfork Effect

The halo effect is when a single positive characteristic or information about the candidate impresses you so much that it influences the entire interview. For instance, if your applicant has graduated from a prestigious university, it may make you see him as a stronger fit. 

The pitchfork bias does the exact opposite. It occurs when a negative trait or information sets the tone of the rest of the interview. If you see that your candidate’s last job lasted only four months, you may draw false conclusions because to you it relates to being lazy or unreliable. 

Let’s remember that a single piece of information is not enough to form the complete picture, hence judging your candidate through the prism of that is short of rational.

5. Contrast Bias

Do you know that trick based on optical illusion, where you are asked to decide whether two squares embedded within another two squares are the same shade of grey – and they turn out to be the same? Our cognitive abilities are reflected in the language and contrasting two or more items is a normal thing. It can, however, lead to contrast bias. 

Contrast bias is closely related to the recency bias, as it happens commonly when there are multiple interviews back-to-back. It occurs when a candidate is compared to another candidate interviewed before them. A strong candidate coming after a very bad one may seem even better than he actually is and vice versa. Contrast bias magnifies our perception of the candidate’s abilities, making us see things differently from what they are.

6. Confirmation Bias

This type of bias is the most common one, as it appears outside of the recruitment process daily. Confirmation bias means favouring information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs. It may, for example, mean preparing a set of interview questions based on a CV that will later during the interview prove or disprove our thesis about the candidate’s suitability. 

The problem is, by doing so we dismiss certain information that could be relevant. You shouldn’t try to validate your assumptions about a candidate but evaluate everything relevant.

Minimise bias in your recruitment process

Eliminating, or at least reducing, bias from interviews is a tedious and difficult process. But knowledge is power, so by acknowledging the existence of the biases mentioned above you’re already a step forward. Here are our 3 suggestions on how to un-bias your interviews.

1. Structure your interview or drop it completely

Following the research quoted by Harvard Business Review, unstructured interviews, i.e. those lacking pre-defined questions, are often unreliable when trying to predict the job success of a candidate. 

Standardise the interviewing process by crafting a list of questions. They should be relevant for the position and presented to all applicants in the same order. That way you can focus on the information about skills and experience rather than what the person is like. 

Structured interviews increase accuracy and reduce bias, as claimed by the 2002 study by Bauer & Baltes. That’s because a go-with-a-flow type of job interview is hardly accurate. You end up asking each candidate a different set of questions, very often based on their profile which in turn leads to a possible bias. 

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As found in this Humanly article, a good way to start creating your list of questions is to focus on behavioural and situational questions. They allow your applicants to have enough room for expressing themselves – yet within the scope relevant to the job. Some of the questions mentioned in the article are:

  • Tell me about a time you failed. How did you deal with the situation and what did you learn?

  • What would you do if an important task was not up to standard, but the deadline to complete it had passed?

Interviews in the form of a casual conversation are more pleasant. However, they make it difficult to accurately compare the candidates afterwards and allow room for bias to emerge. 

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Giving structure to the interview minimises such a risk. However, it is still not the most reliable screening method. As discussed in depth in our blog poststructured interviews scored only 0.51 points (on a scale from 0 to 1) in a study researching the predictive validity of different screening methods. For comparison, an unstructured interview scored 0.38 – which means they’re both not the most reliable methods of predicting future job performance. 

If you, however, opt for switching from interviews to case-based screenings combined with GMA (general mental ability test) – you’ll go from 0.51 (in the best case) to 0.63! Maybe the upgrade is worth rethinking?

2. Set criteria for the position

One of the biggest pearls of wisdom I’ve learned is that you cannot obtain your goals if you don’t know what you’re chasing after. And looking for the perfect talent is a goal to be chased. Therefore, you need to define specific criteria for the position.

Which skills are essential? Which can be learned? And which are simply nice to have? Make a list of the skills you require and rank them from most to least important. Doing so will allow you to diminish the bias by sticking to a given schema. Mark each candidate’s skills in a table and compare after the interview. This will give you a fairly good way of evaluating which applicant has the actually needed skills – and it may not necessarily be the one you thought!

3. The more – the wiser

The wisdom behind teamwork is, generally speaking, that groups tend to make more accurate judgments than a single person. Following that, incorporate multiple interviewers into the process. 

Having more interviewers minimises the risk of subjectivity – it’s no longer one person’s voice that matters. When your candidate has the chance to interact with different people, the risk of personal bias decreases. If one interviewer succumbs to bias and simply doesn’t feel like the applicant is the right fit, the other panel members can discuss the issue and decide whether the intuition is right or not.

4. Don’t rush it

As we mentioned before, our brains are wired to remember the most recent information the most. That being said, give yourself enough time for both the interviewing process and decision-making afterwards. 

Making rushed decisions may mean that you based it on bias, and that’s the last thing you want. Get together with other panel members, compare notes, discuss the interviewees, and make a collective, well-thought decision.

Conclusion

It’s sometimes difficult to realise all the biases around us, and especially those we succumb to ourselves. But they do occur, and they occur during job interviews, too. Each tip provided above helps minimise the impact of bias on the process, but it’s best to incorporate all of them at once. 

Unbiased interviews are not only fair for your applicants, but they also ensure you hire the best talent out there.

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