• Dr. Kim Stephens

Take the Bias Out of Hiring

Updated: May 31, 2020

One of the top questions I get from HR professionals is “How do I eliminate bias in hiring?” This is a tough one because for many of us the hiring process is very subjective. Artificial intelligence (AI) gives some options, but perhaps you are not quite ready to hand over the reins to algorithms So, how do we start to eliminate some of the biases in ourselves?

woman shaking hands with a man

First of all, we need to look at some of the cognitive biases that can lead to errors in our decision making when hiring: overconfidence bias, anchoring bias, similarity bias, the halo/horn effect and confirmation bias.

Overconfidence Bias -- Tendency people have to be more confident in their own abilities than is objectively reasonable.

Overconfidence bias comes into play in hiring when we think we are better at hiring than we are. The research says that there is a fifty percent failure rate for new hires, so this seems to be an area where we could all use a little help. If you are one of those that “goes with your gut” when hiring, you may be relying too much on your own biases.

Anchoring Bias -- Tendency to rely too heavily on an initial piece of information offered (known as the "anchor") when making decisions.

Anchoring bias can come up so often when hiring. Perhaps you may anchor on the prestigious school the applicant attended or get turned off by his/her appearance when first meeting him/her. I was recently presenting to a group of HR executives, and they were quick to point out anchors that could derail an interview: too much perfume, tattoos, nose piercings, gauge earrings, smelling like smoke, chipped nail polish, etc. These could also be called effective heuristics because our judgment is made on superficial factors. But these essentially become anchors that sway our decision one way or the other.

Similarity Bias -- Tendency to favor people just like us.

We all know that we tend to like people who are similar to us. We are comfortable with them. We know what to expect. But do we really want an office full of people like ourselves? During one of my workshops I remember an executive saying, “I want people who are different. Why would I want five people who all act and think the same way. I don’t need five of them. I only need one.” Keep this in mind when you feel you have a real “connection” with the person you are interviewing.

Halo/Horn Effect -- Tendency to base your perception of a person on a single, positive trait (halo) or negative trait (horn).

It is pretty obvious how the halo or horn effect could impact a hiring decision. You may decide an attractive person is more qualified for a job (halo effect) or an unattractive person in less qualified (horn effect). You have essentially taken one trait of the person and associated it with a totally unrelated area, such as competency, honesty, reliability, etc.

Confirmation Bias - Tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information that confirms your preexisting beliefs, while discarding or discounting anything that does not.

Confirmation bias builds upon all the other biases. If we make an opinion about a person within the first few minutes we meet them, we tend to only look at evidence that validates that opinion. For example, you meet someone whose shirt is wrinkled and think that he obviously does not care about his appearance. Throughout the interview, you will zero in on any evidence that shows lack of attention to detail or disorganization.


So, what do we do about it? Well, again, some of these biases can be solved using AI, but for those who want to mitigate their own biases, I offer some suggestions:

  1. Slow down. Be aware of your own biases.

  2. Take your time and reduce distractions. When we try to complete several complex tasks at one time we tend to fall back on automatic thinking, leaving us open to errors and biases.

  3. Ask for other opinions and perspectives. Chances are that others focused on different aspects of the interview or qualities in the applicant.

  4. Hire for the skills needed for the job. List only criteria necessary for the job as required. If the applicant does not need a Master’s degree for the job, don’t put it as a requirement. You can say “Bachelor’s degree required. Master’s preferred.

  5. Use gender-neutral language in job ads.

  6. Blind your resume review process. There are several computer programs and sites to help with this, but a sticky note works also. Cover up the name when you are reviewing resumes.

  7. Use structured interview questions.* This is a big one. If you go into the interview unprepared, you are allowing more of your biases to lead you. Here’s some guidance:

  • Think of 6 skills/traits the applicant needs for the job. (Example: Technical, Reliable, etc.)

  • Make a list of questions for each trait and think about how you will score it (Example: 1- 5). You should have a good idea of what is weak and what is strong.

  • Collect information on one trait at a time, scoring as you go before you move to the next question.

  • Add up the 6 scores. Pick the candidate with the highest score.

If you use this scoring system with multiple interviewers (seeking other opinions), make sure each you score separately and only compare scores at the end.

Of course, one of the best ways to start eliminating your biases is through education. Learn more about cognitive biases, so you can make decisions based on reliable information, rather than your gut feeling.

*See the context for structured interviews: Kahneman, D. Thinking Fast and Slow,pg. 232.

#unconsciousbias #hiring #hiringbias #recruitment

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