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6 Steps to Neutralize Interviewing Biases in your Hiring Process

One could argue that evaluating candidates for leadership vacancies has never been so precarious as it is today. With an exceptionally competitive talent market, a compensation bubble coupled with inflation, and social conversations at a fever pitch, the cost of making the wrong hire is extraordinary. It’s within this context that Leaders are finding that traditional recruitment methods are broken and that the interpersonal signals they’ve relied on for identifying new leadership hires are no longer viable. Neutralizing interviewing biases is one step toward making your recruitment processes more inclusive and effective.

Interviewing Biases Get in the Way of Optimal Hires.

As a hiring manager, your top priority is (or should be) identifying the best talent for your team – period. It seems like a simple concept: define the skill set you’re seeking, interview qualified candidates, and hire the finalist that will best fit your business needs. Unfortunately, interviewer biases can complicate an organization’s hiring strategy – often leading to ineffective hires, and sometimes even putting the company at risk of a discrimination lawsuit. Though we all know recruiting should be as objective as possible, the most qualified candidate doesn’t always get the job. So, what can you do to ensure your organization is getting the best talent by interviewing in an inclusive way?

Your gut feeling is a bad hiring criterion.

We’ve been navigating the upper echelons of the people business for 40 years. We’ve seen firsthand that, at certain points, the best thing to do is take a little bit of the people influence out of the process. We’re talking measurement here, not automation. When you can measurably quantify the solution to a business problem, you can neutralize personal opinions and unseen interviewing biases. At CCY, we help companies build inclusive cultures by leveraging facts and data. So it’s important to work on the people involved in hiring; but you’ll amplify your success by also improving the objectivity of the interview process. Wherever you are in DE&I, this blog post will explain common factors in interview bias and offer strategies aimed at mitigating bias during all phases of talent acquisition.

Conscious vs. Unconscious Biases

First, understand that biases affect virtually all organizations – and individuals. Neutralizing biases in general is more a matter of identifying them than of determining whether they exist. You can assume that they do. Essentially, there are two types of biases:

  • Conscious bias refers to explicit feelings or opinions, often expressed through stereotyping, that impact an individual’s decisions and behavior.
  • Unconscious bias refers to unintentional thoughts or feelings that may impact behavior toward a specific subject matter.

The primary differentiator is that individuals displaying conscious bias are fully aware of their prejudices, whereas those experiencing unconscious bias are often completely unaware of their prejudicial tendencies.

Recognizing Conscious Bias in Referrals and Successions

List of 12 types of interviewing bias with descriptions
Click for full-size infographic.

It’s tempting to believe that only the most extremist individuals would display conscious biases, or outright prejudicial behavior – such as vehement racists, for example. However, conscious bias negatively affects hiring decisions in even the most sophisticated organizations.

Consider the common saying: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” Certainly, flexing one’s network can be one of the best ways to learn about job opportunities and connect with capable, culturally aligned candidates. From a business standpoint, however, this mindset can be extremely damaging.

The Problem with “Who You Know”

We recently advised an organization that was seeking to recruit a strategic leader for a management role. The candidate pool consisted of several highly qualified external applicants, as well as a couple candidates who were referred to apply for the opening by current employees. Due to internal politics, the referrals were automatically invited for interviews, while the external candidates went through a thorough pre-screening before receiving an invitation to interview. In the end, the decision came down to two finalists: a highly qualified external candidate with no organizational ties, and a referred candidate with less impressive qualifications. The organization ended up selecting the referral.

Unfortunately, this is a relatively common scenario. Anecdotally, we advised an organization in examining exit interviews for employees who had left within 18 months of their start date. Of those, roughly 80% had been sourced through an employee referral program. As another example, we often see business leaders offer their children high-level positions within their organization, simply due to relation – without regard to the individual’s actual experience. It’s true that referral programs can be highly effective, but only if referred candidates are vetted as thoroughly as external candidates, and the ultimate selection process remains objective.

Outside of employee referrals, there are several other, more offensive examples of conscious biases that run rampant in Corporate America. Consider the law firm partner who only hires graduates from his alma mater, for example, or the CEO who only promotes men into leadership positions. Unfortunately, these are familiar scenarios for many organizations.

Recognizing Unconscious Bias

Unconscious factors, which manifest as interviewing biases when expressed in the recruitment process, are much more difficult to spot and resolve, as most individuals are unaware of their implicit tendencies. In many ways, unconscious biases can be even more detrimental than outright prejudicial behavior, as these inclinations often go unnoticed while still making a significant negative impact on hiring strategies.

Underlying Human Understanding

It’s important to understand that all individuals are influenced by unconscious biases, and this doesn’t make anybody inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ From a psychological standpoint, we all use schemas and archetypes to quickly organize and categorize the information our brains are constantly processing on an automatic, unconscious level. This helps us to understand the world around us, and to build a framework to predict the outcomes of future interactions. It’s also impossible to change, from a biological standpoint; it’s simply how human cognition functions.

However, unconscious information processing can be detrimental when it leads to biased expectations, or prejudices, in order to fit the individual’s schemata – or understanding of the world. Essentially, we tend to unconsciously gravitate toward concepts that fit neatly within our pre-defined schemata, avoiding unfamiliar situations. From a hiring perspective, this means that an interviewer’s past experiences can affect their judgment of a potential candidate, without their conscious knowledge.

For example, an interviewer may have a pre-conceived idea of what an ‘ideal candidate’ looks like for a position. However, because of this bias, if the interviewer is presented with a qualified candidate who doesn’t neatly fit into that archetype, they may choose to reject the candidate – despite their qualifications.

Strategies for Mitigating Interview Biases

Business leaders everywhere are feeling the gravity of achieving an inclusive and equitable workplace, and the interview process is a prime area for improvement. We are eager to support executive teams in removing roadblocks preventing their organizations from becoming totally inclusive. To get you started, here are some actionable objectives to ensure that your interview strategies remain as neutral and objective as possible:

  • Before reviewing any candidate resumes, develop 3 – 5 targeted behavioral interview questions that will effectively and objectively measure candidates’ competencies across the most critical position criteria. Develop a rubric to essentially ‘score’ candidates’ responses to those specific behavioral questions.
  • Regarding referrals, it’s critical that anyone who refers a candidate for a position is excluded from the interview and decision-making processes. Likewise, anyone who must be involved in the interview process (i.e. direct supervisors) should be prohibited from referring candidates.
  • Allow interviewers to meet with candidates in pairs or consider a panel interview format.
  • Immediately following interviews, have the interviewers meet and de-brief on each candidate. Hearing others’ perspectives on candidates can help to lessen the impact of unconscious biases.
  • Be sure to disregard interviewer feedback that clearly shows a conscious bias for or against any candidate, unless it’s specifically related to that individual’s ability to perform the responsibilities of the job. Then address the issue directly with the interviewer.
  • Analyze the completed scoring rubrics to determine which candidate received the highest interview ‘score.’ Even if the group ultimately decides to hire a different candidate, for whatever reason, taking the step to actively compare the rubric results to the interviewers’ verbal feedback, and challenging any discrepancies, will help to minimize or eliminate unconscious biases from the decision process.

Embrace, then resolve, your organization’s interviewing biases.

Organizations can use a variety of strategies to lessen the impact of biases on the interview process. The most important first step, however, is to recognize that nearly every organization – and individual – is subject to biases. Only then is it possible to develop an objective interviewing strategy. In doing so, you can expect a more diverse, inclusive work environment; growth, as diversity in thought often opens the doors for new business opportunities; better employer branding; increased retention; and overall, continuous improvement.

Working with a talent partner that has established systems to improve inclusivity in recruitment is one way to quickly and effectively reduce interviewing biases. By outsourcing the talent acquisition function to a firm versed in DE&I, you can seamlessly improve inclusivity in candidate sourcing, assessment, interviewing, compensation and selection. To get a free evaluation of your hiring process, just send us a message. We’re here to help.