The bad news — everyone is biased. You, me, and everyone on your hiring team. Bias can have a negative effects on your hiring causing you to miss out on talent and maybe even make bad hires. The good news is that there are simple and concrete ways to remove bias from your hiring process.
It starts with understanding what the most common types of bias are. For each type of bias, we have tips we've gathered from experts on how to keep it from affecting your hiring process:
1. First-impression error
This type of bias allows your initial judgment or first impression of a candidate — good or bad — to affect your feedback or decision. Most interviews are decided by judgments made within the first five seconds. The interviewer (influenced by the candidate’s appearance, handshake, or tone of voice) either likes the person or not. The rest of the interview is spent trying to confirm the first impressions. Sadly, we all do it. Even more, regrettably, these judgments can result in bad hires because none of the judgments you can make about a candidate in the first 5 minutes of meeting them will be an actual indication of their motivation or skill.
In fact, Howard Ross, a thought leader on unconscious bias states in an interview on the Recruiting Future podcast, "We make quick decisions about people. It's the nature of how the mind works. We make determinations about who is safe and who isn't safe. This causes us to make a decision to be interested or not interested in someone based on things that have nothing to do with their competence, professionalism or experience but rather of who they are reminding us or of what past experience we had with people like that."
Tip to avoid first-impression error:
Evaluating your candidate in multiple contexts is a great way to avoid first-impression error. You want to make sure you're giving candidates the chance to give you a second, a third, or more impressions.
The hiring team at the New York Times try to make sure their hiring process is not biassed toward any one type of person. That's why for their tech team they do phone interviews that include a technical discussion, as well as hands-on coding exercises using a shared screen. Then they give a take-home assignment and end with an in-person interview where they can meet colleagues from different departments. All of these contexts give a candidate the opportunity to show you more than what you can get in a first impression.
Dan Pupius, former Head of Engineering at Medium and founder of Range, has developed an extensive hiring process for startups that works against bias. He suggests giving candidates a choice of how they would like to demonstrate their aptitudes. For a technical hire you could, for example, offer choices between white boarding, doing a programming exercise, a design exercise, building an app over the course of a couple days and presenting it or coming into the office to give a tech talk to junior employees. The point is you want to give candidates multiple ways to succeed. This goes against the idea of doing identical interviews for everyone, which is often recommended to avoid bias. The problem with this is that you miss out on talented people that were not given the right opportunity that matches up with what they are capable of.
This is allowing the opinions of others — good or bad — to affect your feedback or decision. Evaluating candidates can be very hard. We're told all our lives that it's not okay to judge people and then you suddenly find yourself having to judge people when involved in the hiring process at your company. So when a colleague has a very strong opinion about a candidate, it might be very tempting to go along with their line of thinking. This is a form of bias, however.
Tip to avoid groupthink:
Avoid groupthink and give yourself the chance to form your own opinion. Do this by agreeing not to share opinions about candidates with colleagues too early. Document your own evaluation before allowing it to be influenced by others. At Scribbr, an Amsterdam based startup, they ran into the problem of sharing opinions too soon. When they went remote in response to COVID-19 they were able to break this cycle. Operations manager Hilde Prinse states, "Normally my colleague and I would walk out of an interview and immediately share our thoughts about how it went. It's hard not to when you're there together. Now a video call ends and you're on your own. That's why we started using scorecards that we fill in individually after the interview. We'll then schedule a meeting later to compare and discuss." This has lead to the removal of groupthink bias from the hiring equation.
Using scorecards is a semi-objective way to document the evaluation of a candidate. Pupius suggests making a scorecard by listing attributes and skills that you value in your company and that are needed for the position. For each skill and attribute you can give the candidate a grade: low, medium, high or did not observe (DNO) along with a space to write down how the candidate demonstrated the skill or attribute to you. What did you observe? What did they say? How did they react in a past experience that illustrates the skills or lack thereof?
3. Halo-horn effect
This is allowing one major strength or weakness of a candidate to affect your overall feedback or decision, rather than thinking holistically. This can occur when an interviewer has something in common with the candidate which makes it more likely for them to like them and evaluate them positively. A study done by Lauren Rivera at Northwestern University, showed that most interviewers look for people who look like them. They look for what they have in common. This can lead to the creation of homogenous teams and means that you could be missing out on some great (diverse) talent!
This doesn't mean that interviewers shouldn't pay any regard to likability at all. Harvard economist and gender bias expert, Iris Bohet argues that likability can be a criteria, but that we should be critical about how high this criteria ranks on our list. In an interview with Quartz she states "My best piece of advice is, let’s make likability criteria No. 8. You have your seven questions, but you are now explicit and honest with yourself that you actually care about that. You are aware that that might be fraught with bias, because you are more likely to like people who look like you and share the same stuff, but at least you’re honest about that. Then you decide how much weight you want to put on No. 8. Is that part more important than the skills and competencies, is it 10% [of the evaluation], is it 20%? Make the invisible visible, and at the end, people still have to make a judgment."
Tip to avoid halo-horn effect:
Rational statements are your friend! Always back up your opinion with rational statements when discussing candidates and their qualities with your colleagues. Not only will this make you sure about your gut feeling (or not), but it will help convince your colleagues too. Pupius goes so far as to say that if someone on your hiring team can't back up a judgment with something the candidate did or said, then it shouldn't count or even be shared at all. He suggests challenging each other when this happens. If someone shares a gut feeling they have about a candidate, they should be asked to produce evidence to support it.
4. Social bias
Social bias occurs when you make a judgment based on gender, cultural background, race, sexuality, etc. due to preconceived notions that you have about that group. This is the big one. The one that our entire society suffers from. Most of the time this happens unknowingly or subconsciously. So don't beat yourself up about it, just work on it. It's important to realize that unlearning social biases is a life long process. Biasses are ingrained in us all by the culture and environment we grow up in. Nevertheless, there are simple things that can be done to avoid social bias in your hiring process the best you can.
Tip to avoid social bias:
Anonymizing the applications you evaluate is a straight forward way to avoid social bias. Unfortunately, this is incredibly necessary since research shows that in the Netherlands candidates with a non-Dutch name are 50% less likely to be invited for an interview. Anonymizing applications is a simple fix. This can be done with some application software or by simply asking a colleague who is not involved in the hiring process to print out each application and cross out all personal information along with anything that gives an indication of a candidate's demographic. Then decide who will be invited to an interview based on these anonymous evaluations.
For hiring at Range, Pupius goes so far as to put zero weight on what schools people went to, their grades, previous companies, etc. Instead, he looks exclusively at what kind of experience and skills a candidate has.
It's also important to challenge yourself and your team to interrogate social biases. Once you know what your biases are, it’s easier to recognize and dismiss them when you have to make a judgment call. To learn this you could consider doing an anti-bias training with your hiring team, but be aware that the effects of these trainings are questioned by many. Howard Ross claims that the most effective types of training that lead to more egalitarian behavior, are ones that help you to understand how your mind works and how you make decisions instead of simply demonstrating what social bias you have. Ross recommends finding structural and systematic ways to apply what you learn in these trainings to your hiring process. Make it so that avoiding bias is top of mind throughout the entire process.
For more on avoiding bias in hiring and creating diverse team have a look at our Diversity and Inclusion guide.