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Reduce Unconscious Bias in Job Interviews

INTERVIEW EDGE • SEPT 2017



Spend enough time in conference rooms – especially in startups – and eventually you’ll hear someone say, “To be successful, you have to know what you don’t know.” While that sounds wonderful, is it possible to know what you don’t know? Actually, where unconscious bias in interviewing is concerned, the answer is yes.

First a definition. Unconscious biases are stereotypes about people that all of us form without realizing it. While that sounds bad, it’s also natural. Our brains are wired in such a way that we instinctively categorize and make assumptions; those perceptions helped early man survive. If you don’t think you have bias, try taking the Implicit Association Test developed at Harvard University.

Because we do it without thinking, unconscious bias is more common than conscious bias and is more likely to pop up during periods of stress or pressure. While there are many situations more stressful than interviewing candidates, there are few more pressure-filled moments than choosing the right candidate.

And that means unconscious bias, the process of filtering, generalizing, and focusing on certain pieces of information during an interview can allow for quick decisions (“He’s not the right fit” or “She’s great”), those decisions may not be the best decisions.

The impact of unconscious bias – and the conversation about it – can take place long after the interview is over. Just ask the folks at Google and other technology companies where gender diversity is concerned.

Most businesses are made up of employees hired through a lens of unconscious bias – for better or worse. So how can you break the trend of bias-based hiring and ensure you hire the best candidate for your job openings?

Recognize a few of the most common unconscious biases


Education bias: “He went to an Ivy League school. He must be smart.”

Paul Otellini, the former Intel CEO and current Google board member, went to the University of San Francisco. Costco founder and retired CEO James Sinegal went to San Diego City College. Countless highly successful people attended less prestigious schools. Possibly that’s why companies like Google no longer over emphasize the school candidates attended. In fact, Google doesn’t even focus on grades. Internal data shows that grades in college only predict employee performance for the first two years. After that, problem-solving, leadership, cultural fit, and intellectual curiosity matter much more.

Experience bias: “She has ten years in the industry. She must be qualified.”

Time on the job has no correlation to achievement. A candidate who has been a software engineer for eight years may be a mediocre programmer. What matters is what the candidate has accomplished – how many apps has she developed or how many back-end systems has he designed? Time on the job is important, but what the individual has accomplished in those years relects his or her skills, qualifications, and competence.

Enthusiasm bias: “He’s really excited about the opportunity. He will hit the ground running.”

We’ve all hired people who talked a good game – often extroverts who are natural self-promoters. That outgoing, fun-loving candidate may be an outstanding salesperson… or he might be off-putting to a large portion of your diverse customer base. Remember that great salespeople need to be exceptional communicators, but they often need a number of other skills, like thinking outside the box and having the ability to collaborate.

“Like me” bias: “I see a lot of myself in her. She must be amazing.”

Your organization already has one of you – and while you’re awesome, research shows that a group of diverse problem solvers will outperform a high-ability problem-solving group that is less diverse. And companies in the top twenty-five percent where gender, ethnic or racial diversity is concerned tend to enjoy better bottom-lines than industry medians. Sum it up, and the best teams are a collection of highly-skilled and highly-diverse individuals.

The “like me” bias extends to cultural fit. Cultural fit is certainly important. Close to ninety percent of organizations cite culture and employee engagement as one of their top challenges.

But according to a New York Times article on cultural fit, “It has shifted from systematic analysis of who will thrive in a given workplace to snap judgments by managers about who they’d rather hang out with.…and has become a catchall used to justify hiring people who are similar to decision makers and rejecting people who are not.”

How to reduce unconscious bias in interviews


The process starts before an in-person interview takes place. Use a phone screen to focus on skills, abilities, and knowledge. This relatively “blind interview” will automatically eliminate some degree of visually-based unconscious bias. If you want to make the interview even more blind, you can go so far as to use a voice modulation app for technical interviews so the interviewer can’t know if the candidate is male or female.

Then take a structured approach to the actual interview.

First of all, establish objective, performance-based criteria. Research shows that clearly defining standards and expectations ahead of time – and ensuring that bias in the construction of hiring criteria does not occur – reduces gender stereotypes.

Then assess candidates against those criteria using skills-based testing, behavioral interviewing, and competency evaluations. Real-time testing evaluates actual skills, while effective behavioral interviews allow the candidate to demonstrate abilities and reveals the innate competencies that led to specific achievements.

That’s the approach we take in our Effective Interviewing!® training. The process starts with assessing the essential functions of an open job position and defining your organizational culture. This evaluation of job requirements and culture identifies the required behavioral competencies a candidate needs to be possess to succeed in this job. Keep in mind the point isn’t to create a laundry-list of requirements, but to identify specific skills and behavioral traits that will enhance a team’s productivity and success.

A selection of nine to twelve behavioral competencies from our library make up a “Job/Candidate Profile,” a data-driven template that is used to benchmark all candidates against the skills and behaviors desired and not just compare candidates to each other. This process will lead to a much more thorough assessment than “He was great. We had a terrific conversation. We really connected.”

In short, you need to be able to hire what Dharmesh Shah, CTO of HubSpot calls “a doer of stuff that needs to get done.” If your team is struggling to build a viable application, the right candidate has successfully written code and can also be productive in your work environment.

Our library includes forty-eight behavioral competencies with clear definitions and behavioral indicators that can be used to describe jobs and evaluate candidates. This list of competencies provides a common language your team can use to describe candidates that is much more objective in assessing past performance and culture fit – and much less likely to include unconscious bias.

Finally, the interview process is not complete until there is clear assessment of the candidate’s competencies and a hiring recommendation from each interviewer. The hiring manager can then weigh the recommendations made by a team of four to five individuals who, ideally, represent the diversity your organization strives to achieve.

The bottom line is that by having the right interview techniques in place, you can reduce unconscious bias from your hiring decisions and workplace, and build an even more successful company.