Unconscious bias is unavoidable. It is hardwired in our brains and has a significant impact on the decisions we make every day. While we can’t stop it from happening, we can filter it out of the candidate selection process in ways that lead to much better hiring decisions.
This piece explores the types of unconscious bias that most impact the selection process, as well as how the right interviewing and candidate evaluation techniques can mitigate those impacts. But first, a story…
We use an interview demonstration video in our Selecting for Success™ training program. One of the partners in my firm interviews an impressive young woman – let’s call her Emily – who tells a substantial story about her co-op experience at a financial services firm. There is one thing, though…after we shot and edited the video, we played it for our “candidate.” At one point, she shrieked and exclaimed, “No, you can’t use this!”
In the video, Emily is wearing slip-on canvas sneakers with white socks to go with her neatly pressed navy pantsuit. She thought that the cameras would only be filming her from the waist up and was mortified, even though the video only cut to the sneakers a handful of times. We reassured her that it was fine, and that the wonderful story she told and how she told it was the important part.
Fast forward…in our workshops, after showing the video and doing a debrief, we ask, “Was there anything else you noted that you feel is significant?” And every time, someone says something along the lines of, “What about those sneakers?!”
The most interesting part of people’s reactions to the sneakers is how different they can be. One person said, “She’s a Millennial and those things just aren’t important to them. It’s not a big deal either way.” Another said, “It told me she is kind of nerdy, and I thought it was really charming.” Others concluded that Emily was totally unprofessional and couldn’t be depended upon to know how to act in a financial services environment.
So, what does this tell us?
The biggest take-away: We all have unconscious biases that significantly impact how we see things and what we think of people. We aren’t always aware of exactly why we feel the way we do, but we’re really good at coming up with reasons anyway.
As we know, one of the primary differentiators of the human species is the power of its intellect. The rational thought that happens in the “front of the brain” allows us to make connections, plan for the future, and solve complex problems. But, our feelings come from our “reptilian brains” which instinctively react to stimuli. Then, our rational brains take over and come up with a good reason for those instinctive reactions or emotions.
With Emily, one person felt good about her and developed a “nerdy/charming” theory of who Emily was. Another was more neutral and dismissed her sneakers as a “Millennial thing.” Another had a negative reaction and concluded that the sneakers made a statement about her lack of professionalism.
Types of Unconscious Bias
Different types of unconscious bias affect our hiring decisions in different ways. It helps to be aware of what they are and how they work. Let’s look at some of the main culprits.
- Confirmation bias. This is maybe the most prevalent – and insidious – as it relates to candidate selection. This is when we make an instant judgment about a person or candidate and then look for evidence to confirm that impression. We also dismiss or ignore evidence that counters that judgment. Research shows that we instinctively make hiring decisions within ten seconds of meeting a candidate, so this is one to watch out for.
- Attribution bias. This is when we “fill in the blanks” by drawing conclusions about someone’s behavior. If we don’t know why someone did what they did, we will make up a reason. A classic example of this is thinking someone is a jerk because they cut you off on the highway, when it’s possible they are having a medical emergency or simply didn’t see you. This type of bias was a big factor in the story about Emily. People had impulsive reactions to Emily and then made up their own reasons as to why she wore those sneakers.
- Affinity bias. We prefer p