Unconscious Bias – How to Keep our Brains from Making Bad Hiring Decisions, Part 2

In a separate blog post, Unconscious Bias – How to keep our Brains from Making Bad Hiring Decisions, I wrote about key types of unconscious bias that can lead to bad hires. I also gave some tips on how to best use critical incident behavioral interviews to get rich, objective behavioral data – an absolute must in eluding the dangers of bias.

This piece picks up from there and addresses the critical issue of what to do with that data. Getting objective data is critical but no more important than what you do with it once you have it. All too often, I see companies invest in a sound interview process by establishing consistent hiring criteria and providing tools and training to interviewers, only to see it fall apart after the interview process is over.

Mitigating the Impact of Unconscious Bias – Candidate Evaluations

Here’s a 7-step checklist for weeding out the influence of unconscious bias with a data-based candidate evaluation process:

Step 1: Ask each person to take detailed notes on the evidence given in the interview. If you only ask for summary judgments, people forget what they heard to justify their conclusions. I wrote about how to take good notes in Part 1, but as a reminder, that basically means writing down what they candidate actually said instead of any subjective interpretations. Make sure each interviewer takes good notes and has them ready for the next step. If there is time, ask them to review their notes and identify which hiring criteria the various pieces of evidence support in preparation for the debrief.
Step 2: Hold an all-hands candidate debrief meeting to share the data. People’s individual memories are suspect, which is why eyewitness accounts are often considered to be unreliable. People can remember things that didn’t even happen, or remember only certain things versus others. In other words, we don’t just forget things, we misremember things or make them up to fit the narrative that our biases create. Here’s what’s key: Different interpretations of the data across interviewers helps identify bias. Everyone involved in the interview process should make themselves available for a group candidate debrief meeting – in person or virtually. Make sure to do this as soon after the interviews are conducted as possible. Having good notes will help but details fade over time – starting right away – and the details are what drive objective evaluations.
Step 3: Ignore irrelevant information. These are distractors and red herrings that can divert attention away from the evidence you are looking for. Inferring competencies from where someone went to school or where they used to work often tips the scale one way or another. That may be helpful information for sourcing purposes, but it doesn’t predict future performance and links strongly to unproductive preconceived notions. It can be particularly compelling when it is an example of affinity bias – when you prefer someone who is like you or someone you know. Be aware of how someone’s experience, their hobbies, or who they know affect your view of them. Maintain focus on the specifics of how someone handled situations in the past – the details of what they did, said, thought and felt. Actively disregard the rest.
Step 4: Facilitate a thorough, structured review process. Don’t start the meeting with, “So, what did you think?” Unstructured debriefs allow people to start with subjective feelings and conclusions. You’re also likely to miss or gloss over some of the key criteria. Even worse is starting with, “Thumbs up or thumbs down?” Questions that jump right to conclusions are a great way to negate much of the positive impact of effective interviews. “Why waste time, she’s great!” Or, “Let’s move on, I can’t imagine anyone wanting to hire this guy.” It can take a strong facilitator to guard against people’s instincts to “go there” right away. One person should take point for leading the discussion and documenting people’s evidence. Then, assess each criterion separately based on the evidence. This helps avoid the “halo effect,” where strong positive evidence for one criterion can affect the way a candidate is rated on others. Ask interviewers to offer the evidence they heard that supports each competency, walking through the hiring criteria one-by-one. Don’t ask for conclusions, just the actual behaviors – actions, thoughts, etc. – that provide either positive or negative evidence of each competency, characteristic, or skill.
Step 5: Make sure everyone’s voice is heard. One dominant voice can have a disproportionate impact on hiring decisions. Don’t let the extroverts dominate the discussion. If one person tends to speak first and loudest, the likelihood of his or her biases influencing the decision increases dramatically. This is especially true when the most senior leader in the room offers his or her opinion first. When that happens, others are much less likely to offer competing evidence. Multiple perspectives help filter out individual personal bias. Explore different interpretations of the data and encourage constructive debate. Those debates are good opportunities to unearth bias and encourage articulate presentations of evidence to back up arguments.
Step 6: Use the right rating scale. Rating scales based on subjective terms tend to lead to more subjective decisions. Asking evaluators to differentiate between “Outstanding” and “Good,” without rules for what these adjectives mean, results in fuzzy decisions. Instead, when evaluating a candidate against each hiring criterion, consider the amount of strong positive (or negative) evidence the candidate demonstrated across different interviews or situations as the basis for your ratings. Also, be sure to differentiate exceptional behaviors from “coming-to-work” behaviors that may be positive but also things anyone might do in the same situation. This will help keep your evaluations more objective and data-based.
Step 7: Be open about bias! Without acceptance and awareness, our biases will stay “underground” where they can wreak the most havoc. Don’t be ashamed of them. Explore your own personal biases and share them with others. Ask them to do the same. Get it all out on the table. Then, keep each other accountable for staying grounded in the evidence from the interviews.

Unconscious bias is a natural human phenomenon and not one we are likely to eliminate anytime soon. However, using the right techniques for interviewing and evaluating candidates will ensure your organization is not subject to the whims of personal bias and its significant repercussions in the hiring process.

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