This past week I conducted a course for a group of engineering department heads on how to interview and recruit top talent. The focus was hiring passive candidates. It was quickly clear to the managers that hiring passive candidates requires a different process than hiring active candidates. The big difference: The prospects are also interviewing the company and hiring manager while they’re being interviewed. In order to successfully navigate this dual process I told the managers they need to totally eliminate interviewer bias.

To set the stage I asked the hiring managers if they used the same criteria to hire someone they’ve worked with in the past or someone who’s a total stranger. They quickly realized their focus with acquaintances was on the person’s past performance. This was true for promoting someone or assigning the person to a big project. Even highly referred candidates from a credible source are judged largely on their past performance doing comparable work. Surprisingly, all of the people in the room got their current job this way. Not so surprising was that their subsequent performance was highly predictable.

However, when strangers are hired for the same role a totally different assessment process is used and the predictability is far less.

To start, even to get a chance to be interviewed, strangers must possess a laundry list of skills, experiences and god-like personality traits and competencies. Then they need to agree to a compensation range as another step before being interviewed. During the interview these strangers are judged largely on their presentation skills and personality and their ability to think on their feet dodging superficial and/or ill-advised questions and/or those that test for technical brilliance.

From beginning to end, none of this predicts on-the-job performance. But that doesn’t matter. To get the job, all of their answers, right or wrong, are filtered through the biases of each interviewer who individually vote using their thumbs.

I contend that the three primary causes of hiring errors – including not hiring the best person – are attributed to processes like the above, lack of understanding of real job needs and interviewer bias. I’ve written extensively how to overcome the first two problems but without eliminating interviewer bias they won’t help much. So let’s begin here.

Nine Outlandishly Simple Ways to Reduce Interviewer Bias

  1. Wait 30 minutes. Control the natural urge to make any yes or no type hiring decision for the first 30 minutes of the interview. A pre-scripted series of interview questions will help overcome the urge to decide too soon.
  2. Conduct a phone interview first. A get-to-know each other phone screen focusing on general fit and sharing of major job challenges is a great way to minimize the visual impact of first impressions.
  3. Conduct a thorough work history review. The mechanical nature of the work history review forces emotions into the background.
  4. Treat the candidate as an SME. By initially assuming every candidate is a fully competent subject matter expert you will ask questions based on this perspective. Use the interview to disprove this positive viewpoint.
  5. Bring your biases to the conscious level. When we meet someone we instantly like we relax a bit and become more open-minded. When the instant reaction is negative we become uptight. By tracking this reaction you’ll be able to better understand its cause and ultimately control it using the other techniques on this list.
  6. Be a juror, not a judge. As the judge says during the pre-trail sitting of the jury, “Collect the evidence before making a guilty or non-guilty decision.” The same advice should be followed when interviewing job candidates.
  7. Disprove your first impression. For those with a positive first impression go out of your way to prove they’re not competent. Do the opposite for those with a less than positive first impression.
  8. Reverse engineer the candidate’s nervousness. I don’t mind if a candidate is a bit nervous at the start of the interview. If you do all of the above he or she won’t be at the end of the interview. Be more concerned with those who aren’t the least bit nervous.
  9. Measure first impressions at the end of the interview. Even if first impressions are important to job success, not everyone with good first impressions are top performers. At the end of the interview ask yourself if the person’s first impression will help or hinder on-the-job performance.

First impressions are seductive. Interviewers will unconsciously go out of their asking questions and seeking evidence to prove their initial one-minute intuitive reaction to a candidate. To minimize the problem use the phone screen and first 30 minutes of the interview to convert strangers into acquaintances. Then judge them on their past performance doing comparable work.

You also might want to try these same techniques when meeting anyone for the first time.