Raising The Bar: How To Be A Less Biased Interviewer

A few weeks ago I wrote about some of the things companies can do to “raise the bar” on designing an effective interview process. I focused on structural strategies — changes companies can make to the way they evaluate candidates to create a level playing field and make better hiring decisions. For any company that wants to build a diverse organization, removing bias at the structural level is key.

But there are also things individuals can do to minimize bias in interviewing and decision-making. Research has found that awareness of bias alone isn’t enough — rather, we need to constantly push ourselves to challenge and overcome our biases. Here are three suggestions for minimizing bias as an interviewer:

(1) Develop clear criteria, and stick to them

In my last post I recommended that companies design more effective interviews to evaluate people based on relevant skills. (Structured interviews and work samples are two best practices.) But even if your company doesn’t do this, you can create your own processes to ensure that your decisions are as objective and unbiased as possible. A wealth of research indicates that establishing in advance the qualifications necessary for a role, and a plan for evaluating those qualifications in your interview, will lead to better and less biased hiring.

In one of my favorite studies on this subject, researchers showed participants resumes of two hypothetical candidates, one with more education (“book smart”) and one with more experience (“street smart”), and asked participants to choose which candidate was better qualified for the role of police chief. When the resumes were anyonymous, participants chose the book smart candidate. Then the researchers assigned the book smart candidate a male name and the street smart candidate a female name. Participants again chose the (now male) book smart candidate. But when the genders were switched — the book smart candidate was assigned a female name and the street smart candidate a male name — participants for the first time chose the male, street smart candidate. In each scenario, participants justified their decision by explaining that the selected resume had the most important qualifications for the role. Participants unintentionally adjusted their opinions about the skills necessary for the role to match their gender-biased assumptions. Interestingly, researchers identified an effective method of reducing this bias. By asking participants to decide in advance (i.e., before looking at any resumes) whether book smarts or street smarts mattered more for the role, and then giving them the two resumes, the bias disappeared and men and women were evaluated fairly.

What this study tells us is that when we don’t decide in advance what criteria are important, we’re likely to be influenced by gut instincts about who we think might be a better fit for a job. Gut instincts, perhaps unsurprisingly, are full of bias. If instead we decide before meeting any candidates what qualifications are important, and keep interviews focused on evaluating those qualifications, we’ll conduct less biased interviews and make better decisions.

(2) Remind yourself about common biases before an interview

Interestingly, research has found that people who believe their own judgments to be objective and unbiased are actually more likely to be biased in making hiring decisions. Instead of assuming that we are objective, we should assume that we’re not, and actively engage in strategies to combat our own biases. One way to do this is to remind yourself of common biases likely to affect your decision before you go into an interview. (This is a great strategy to use before you go into any situation where you will be evaluating people — writing performance reviews, making compensation decisions, and deciding whom to assign important projects are other areas where this strategy can be helpful.) Here are two common biases to remind yourself of before interviews:

“Similar to Me” bias: Research has shown that interviewers have an unconscious tendency to favor people similar to them. When you have things in common with a candidate (things like where you’re from, where you went to school, what area of town you live in), you may prefer that candidate over one with whom you don’t share those types of similarities, regardless of who is better suited for the job. This is a hard bias to overcome, but we can minimize it by being aware of it, realizing it is not something we want influencing our hiring decisions, and consciously observing when it might be affecting our perspective on a candidate.

Confirmation bias: Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms your existing beliefs. An interviewer typically develops a first impression of a candidate within a few minutes of meeting them; as a result of confirmation bias, the interviewer may then spend the rest of the interview searching for information to confirm that first impression. Given this tendency, interviewers who want to fairly and effectively evaluate people should push themselves to recognize and challenge first impressions, keeping an open mind throughout the interview.

(3) Write down detailed feedback

When people feel accountable for their decisions, those decisions are less likely to be influenced by bias. In the interview context, one great accountability tool is to take the time to write down feedback about a candidate soon after meeting him or her. Ideally your notes should include the questions you asked the candidate, a summary of answers, your recommendation on whether to move forward, and the factors contributing to that recommendation. The simple act of articulating the basis for your decision can make you more critical of your decision making process, and as a result, less biased.

Each of these strategies will not only minimize the extent to which your opinions about candidates are influenced by bias, they’ll make you a better interviewer overall. Of course, if you want to see broader changes throughout your organization, encourage others to start using these strategies as well, and urge leaders in your company to implement broader structural changes.