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

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…

Emily’s Sneakers

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 people we naturally like and, again, emphasize positive evidence for those people and ignore negative evidence. In other words, “chemistry” matters but isn’t predictive of someone’s future performance on the job. This relates closely to similarity bias, where we tend to prefer people like ourselves. This works in reverse for people we don’t like or are different from us.
Halo effect. We tend to let our impression of someone in one area influence our opinion of them in other areas. For instance, assuming someone is strong against all the hiring criteria because they showed positive evidence of one or two. The “pitchfork effect” is the opposite, and can lead to drawing a negative overall impression of a candidate early in an interview.
Contrast effect. This is especially important when interviewing or evaluating multiple candidates in a short period of time. We will overvalue someone when compared to substandard candidates, or undervalue someone who is compared against exceptional candidates. To avoid the impact of this bias, each candidate should be evaluated independently against the hiring criteria instead of against each other.

Mitigating the Impact of Unconscious Bias

Making good hiring decisions that are not based on our “gut feelings” begins with an evidence-based approach to interviewing, and the “critical incident” interview is most effective. For an in-depth look at how critical incident interviews are different than many typical behavioral interviews, please see one of my previous blogs, Behavioral Interviewing: Getting the Questions Right. Using the critical incident technique, here are some things you need to do to guard against the influence of unconscious bias.

Ask about actual past experiences. The key is getting hard data. Don’t spend your time asking the candidate what they would do or how they typically do things. Ask them what they actually did.
Dig deeper. Get numerous specific examples of what the person did, said, thought, and felt at key points in the story. Too many behavioral interviews get the plot of the story, but not much else in the way of behavioral evidence.
Spend more time on each situation. Many clients I have worked with think it’s best to ask six or seven questions over the course of a 45-minute interview to “cover more ground.” Asking fewer questions leads to more data. Leave yourself at least 10 minutes for each question.
Take good notes. Only write down what the candidate said instead of any conclusions or interpretations. You will need this evidence to support your evaluation. It’s easy to forget or misremember the details later, opening the door for your biases to take over.
Don’t evaluate the candidate until after the interview. Stay open. Taking good notes supports this mindset. Don’t get sucked into the dangers of confirmation bias.
Know what you’re looking for. If everyone comes up with their own set of hiring criteria, their biases can inform the process before the interviews even begin. Having a common set of criteria also allows for more evidence-based discussion during the candidate debriefs.

Getting objective data is critical, but no more important than what you do with it once you have it. I’ll explore how to weed out the influence of unconscious bias during the candidate evaluation process in a second blog post on this topic – stay tuned!

CTA Decorative Image

Get the latest insights in your inbox

Opt In(Required)

Related Posts

Artificial Intelligence and Leadership Development

Feb 20, 2024 | by Scott Simpson | Home Page, Leadership Development
Learn about the intersection of artificial intelligence and leadership development, and where it may soon have the biggest impact on talent development.

Employee Attraction & Retention in the COVID-19 Era

Dec 15, 2021 | by George Klemp | Leadership Development
Employee attraction and retention – or how best to hire people and hold on to them – is always a hot topic in talent development…

Finding Hidden Gems to Meet Your Hiring Needs

Jul 21, 2021 | by George Klemp | Leadership Development
This is the second of my two blog posts on hidden gems – the uniquely talented people who are often hiding in plain sight. The…
Read More