Everything you ever wanted to know about interview bias, but were afraid to ask

Recently I was talking with an executive about job offers; specifically how so much of the decision rides on faith and how you really don’t know the person you are hiring considering that the decision is based off of little more than a few conversations. This inevitably turned to personal horror stories of hires that didn’t go quite as expected, such as one ultimately resulting in an early morning visit from the sheriff. Yeah, I got stories, but at the same time I have made some absolutely, positively amazing hires as well and the one indicator for virtually all of these was how they interviewed. Sure, their resume got my attention, but the interview is what sealed the deal (and in some instances, my fate).

I have conducted a LOT of interviews in my 20 plus years as an HR pro, and if there is one thing I can guarantee, it would be that there are no guarantees. The one thing I think we can all agree on is this: the interview is little more than a social interaction. Sure, you are going to talk about their job and what they like and don’t like and where they see themselves in 5 years – actually I hope that you don’t ask that question, since it is pointless. But no matter what questions you ask, their specific answers aren’t the only deciding factors for you. You are gauging how they present themselves. How confident they are. How they are going to represent the company (and you, if you are being honest). In other words, whether they are going to be a good fit in your organization. Sure you are probably going to delve further into their experience and specific examples on their resume, but chances are you are talking to them because you see value in their experiences and education, or you saw potential in them; both cases likely came from their resume and/or application. If you are sitting down with a candidate blind – meaning not knowing anything about their background, you should really reevaluate your recruiting process.

So if the main purpose of the interview is to better understand whether the candidate will be a good fit in your organization, it is important to remain as objective as possible. This can be tough though, because we are human and subjective by our very nature. And while we don’t mean to, we often let biases enter into our interviewing efforts.

When it comes to interview biases, there are a bunch. Some are innocent, like a preference for people who use the word “y’all” a lot, while others might not be so nice, even to the point that we may not like to admit they are there. Below I am including four biases that come to my mind straight out of the gate. There are certainly more, so who knows, maybe I will do an “Everything you ever wanted to know about interview bias, but were afraid to ask: Pt. 2” post down the road. I’m crazy like that.

1. Confirmation Bias: This is probably the most commonly cited form of interview bias, which is a tendency to cabbage onto information that supports the image we have formed in our heads of the person, before we actually sit down with them. The result is you, the person conducting the interview, tends to overlook signs that go against the image you have in your mind, whether good or bad. For example, let’s say that you are looking to hire a Software Engineer for your team. The HR/Recruiting geeks send you a candidate who has all the boxes checked; they have the education and experience you are looking for, they are in your price range, etc. However, when you look at the resume you see that they have spent their entire career in big firms, and while this is all fine and good, you are looking for someone who is going to be willing to juggle multiple projects and have an entrepreneurial, get it done mindset. So, the question is: do you go in with an open mind, or have you already decided that this candidate is going to be too rigid?

2. Personal Bias: This is where you, as an interviewer let your decisions be influenced by superficial evaluations like the level of attractiveness of the candidate, the candidate’s race, sex, where they live, etc. The technical term for this is Affective Heuristic (I had to look that one up to double check my spelling). Aside from being blatantly illegal in a lot of cases, it is also just stupid. Ugly candidates often make great employees. I know because I have always gotten stellar reviews.

4. Similar to Me: This is where you interview someone who has similar traits to you. Maybe they laugh at your jokes, maybe they read HR for (y’)all too. Maybe they regard man buns in the same level of esteem as you do. Whatever the case, we tend to like people who are like ourselves, but that doesn’t mean that they are going to be good for the role you are interviewing. That is unless they are HR for (y’)all readers, which I think we would all agree is a good sign.

6. Halo and Horns: OK, so this one sounds like a Dan Brown novel. Halo and Horns are two separate biases where you take one thing you really like (Halo) or don’t like (horns) about a candidate and let that overshadow everything else. For instance, let’s say you are interviewing a candidate and notice that they went to Texas A&M (WHOOP!). Naturally you are going to be enamored by this and may overlook challenge areas. This would be a Halo effect or bias. On the flip side, perhaps you are speaking with a graduate from that other university in Austin. Understandably that may cast a negative pallor over everything else, and would therefore be an example of a Horn effect. Or in this particular case, a Longhorn effect (these are the jokes).

So there are four examples of interview bias that come to mind off of the top of my head. There are many more, but the key to all of this is being aware. Awareness is the first step to making the best decisions you can, always remembering that this process is not infallible, and at the end of it you may end up at the end of your driveway with local law enforcement explaining how this person really did interview well…

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