12 Mind Altering Ideas to Overcome the “Knee Jerk” Bias

Panel Interviews are One of 12 Ways to Minimize Interviewer Bias

The news has been pretty charged of late and I can’t find a single talking head on a single news show who’s objective.

Or the politicians they're interviewing either

However, the reason for this post has nothing to do with politics. It has to do with human nature in general and hiring in particular.

What I’ve discovered over the past 40 or so years is that few hiring managers or interviewers are even somewhat objective when it comes to defining the job or how they assess candidates. That’s why it’s rare that candidates are assessed on their ability and motivation to do the work. Instead, most people are judged on their motivation to get the job, a bunch of generic competencies, the depth of their technical knowledge and the quality of their presentation skills.

This is evident in the “knee jerk” bias. If a candidate makes a positive impression for whatever reason the interviewer looks for facts to justify the candidate as strong. And if the candidate makes a negative impression for whatever reason the interviewer looks for facts to justify excluding the candidate. Not surprisingly it’s easy to find facts to justify either bias. It’s also easy to eliminate many hiring errors due to this bias with some of the following simple steps.

12 Ways to Bend Your Mind and Make Better Hiring Decisions

  1. Get a better measuring stick. Defining a job using a laundry list of “must-have” skills and a bunch of generic competencies is the cause of the problem, not the solution. These are not job descriptions; they’re person descriptions. As a result, interviewers are forced to judge a person on their perceptions of the job and their own biases. Consider that a true job description is a list of things people need to do, not a list of things they need to have. Eliminating bias starts by assessing people using this type of objective standard.
  2. Systematize the process. Eliminate yes/no gladiator voting where the manager with the biggest thumb wins. Instead require interviewers to provide evidence of competency and motivation to do the work defined by the new measuring stick.
  3.  Use panel interviews. As long as the interview is semi-scripted and the interviewers on the panel are assigned roles it’s difficult for bias to overwhelm the process. Here are the basic guidelines.
  4. Bring your biases to the conscious level. People tend to relax when they meet a candidate they instantly like and get uptight when this instant reaction is negative. Make a note about this every time you meet a candidate. A pattern will soon emerge. Controlling your biases starts by recognizing you have them.
  5. Do the opposite of your typical first impression reaction. Most people seek out positive confirming facts for people they like and negative facts for people they don’t like. You can neutralize your biases by doing the opposite.
  6. Treat candidates as consultants. We initially give someone who is a subject matter expert or a highly regarded consultant the benefit of the doubt. If you give every candidate the same courtesy – whether you like them or not – the truth will be evident by the end of the interview.
  7. Measure first impressions at the end of the interview. If first impressions are important for job success, assess them at the end of the interview when you’re not seduced by them. Then objectively determine if the person’s first impression will help or hinder on-the-job success.
  8. Listen to the judge. The judge’s instructions to the jurors are always the same: Hear all of the evidence before reaching a conclusion. Every interviewer should take the same advice.
  9. Conduct a phone screen first. The less personal nature of a phone screen naturally reduces bias by eliminating visual clues and focusing on general fit and the person’s track record of growth and performance. By establishing this initial connection with the candidate based on his or her past performance, the candidate’s actual first impression – strong or weak – is less impactful.
  10. Wait 30 minutes. Force yourself to wait at least 30 minutes before making any yes or no decision. During this time collect the same information from each candidate whether you like the person or not.
  11. Use a scripted interview. Football coaches script the first 20 plays of every game. By using pre-scripted questions – and giving them to the candidate ahead of time – you reduce the chance of going off-script due to the interviewer’s emotional reaction to the candidate.
  12. Take a walk. Don’t start the interview right away. A tour or a trip to the café will neutralize bias and help reduce any candidate nervousness.

What’s surprising (or not), once you get to know someone few are as bad or as good as you first thought. Unfortunately when you hire someone with inflated expectations you’re bound to be disappointed. What’s worse is not hiring the best person you should have due to “knee jerk” bias. In this case you’ll never know what a huge mistake you made.

How to Eliminate 50% of All Hiring Mistakes in 30 Minutes

I’ve been interviewing and placing job candidates for 40 years and tracking their subsequent performance for almost as long. Based on this and training more than twenty thousand recruiters and hiring managers on how to actually predict on-the-job performance, one problem always stands out:

The best person for the job is frequently not the one whose hired. The best presenter more often gets the nod.

By overvaluing interview presentation skills over past performance we sometimes hire people who are strong but just as often hire people who are not. This causes a worse problem: Not hiring the best performer because he/she is not a great interviewee or doesn't look or sound quite right. This problem is summarized in the graphic.


Getting past the veneer of presentation skills and digging into a candidate’s past performance can eliminate both problems. In fact, by just following the simple steps below it can be done in the first 30 minutes of the interview.

Define the work before defining the person doing the work.

Most job descriptions including your company's look like this list of more than 800 jobs on Indeed.com for mechanical engineers in the Chicago area. Other than the common generic responsibilities the requirements define what the person hired needs to have in terms of skills, education and experience. These are not job descriptions, they’re “person descriptions.”

Since clarifying job expectations has repeatedly been shown to be the number one driver of performance, it’s important to define the work that needs to be done before defining the person doing the work. Most jobs can be defined as a series of 5-6 performance objectives. Here’s an example of one and the instruction manual on how to prepare one for any job.

Getting the job is not the same as doing the job.

Emotions play a big role in who gets hired. Most managers overvalue first impressions, affability, assertiveness and communication skills. Techies overvalue the depth of technical skills. Most interviewers quickly eliminate those who “just don’t fit,” using some nebulous criteria including those who seem quiet, less interested and introspective.

One way to overcome these biases is using a scripted 30-minute interview for all candidates whether they make a good first impression on not. This delay forces objectivity into the assessment. At the end of 30 minutes you can then determine if it makes sense to seriously consider the person. Using a talent scorecard with specific ranking guidelines quickly separates the objective interviewers from those who over rely on emotions or their intuition. This entire process is summarized in the video below.

Recognize that strangers are treated differently than acquaintances and referrals.

In a recent post, I contended that people who are personally connected to the interviewer in some way – even loosely – are evaluated differently than strangers. Strangers are assumed unqualified to start. Under this premise they are judged largely on the depth of their skills, level of direct experience, personality and first impression. These are terrible predictors of performance and fit. The connected person begins with a significant advantage: they’re assumed competent. The subsequent assessment is slower and based on the person’s track record of past performance and ability to learn new skills. Here’s a simple way to assess everyone the same way.

Managers ask irrelevant questions and assess people on meaningless facts.

Brain teasers were proved not too smart long ago, although it took a huge study by Google before these questions were shown to be useless. I had a GM client who related strong organizing and planning skills with an orderly desk, and wanted to visit every candidate’s office as part of the assessment. This past year I had a client who assumed people who cancel interviews at the last minute due to a family crisis lack a strong work ethic. Since it’s hard to know when a hiring manager or someone on the interviewing team will go ballistic I suggest using more panel interviews. This way everyone hears the same questions and answers and everyone keeps everyone else honest.

The typical hiring process is too transactional.

Filling jobs with those who are the most skilled is totally different than hiring the strongest person possible. The former is largely a box-checking exercise with the compensation determined by supply and demand. The latter involves spending more time with fewer candidates focusing on their past performance, upside potential and intrinsic motivation to actually do the work that needs to be done. When people are hired this way there’s an instant improvement in quality of hire, an increase in job satisfaction and a huge reduction in unnecessary turnover.

There are a lot of great people who don’t get hired because they don’t fit some misguided stereotype of success. And it’s not because these people are different or odd. It’s that the traditional approaches for hiring and stereotypes are flawed. Bottom line: Don’t use the interview to make the hiring decision, use the interview to collect the evidence needed to make the hiring decision.

Break the Hiring Ceiling to Get a Better Job

Companies put a lid on the quality of people they're hiring by using skills-laden job descriptions and transactional processes. Job seekers can break this artificial talent ceiling by being creative, gutsy and engaging.

Most or what I do involves training and coaching recruiters and hiring managers to use Performance-based Hiring to find, recruit, interview and hire outstanding talent. Most of these candidates have multiple opportunities and few reply to job postings so recruiters and hiring managers need to be both skilled and creative to hire them. Most aren't though. This fact offers the savvy job seeker an opportunity to bend some rules to get a better job.

Bending the rules starts by knowing the rules. The most important is the idea that traditional job descriptions put a lid on the quality of the people being seen. To break this ceiling I ask hiring managers to define the job as a series of 6-8 prioritized performance objectives rather than using the more common laundry list of "must-have" skills and experiences. Job seekers can do this during the interview.

The second is to replace the transactional box checking process most companies use with a consultative recruiting process. This approach involves spending more time with fewer candidates to better match real job needs with the person's ability and interests.

There's no reason job seekers can't use a similar, more focused ceiling-breaking process.

For job seekers the process starts by fully understanding the difference between transactional and consultative selling. Buying cars, purchasing anything on Amazon or negotiating the price for something based on quantity is a transactional sales process. Finding jobs on some job board and applying is a similar transactional process.

When a product or service is customized to fit the specific needs of the buyer a consultative sales process is used. In this case the sales rep begins with a discovery process to determine the customer's needs and based on this prepares a customized solution. A comparable consultative process for hiring is how referred candidates are recruited and hired in the hidden job market before the requisition is officially opened.

Job seekers can find these better jobs in the hidden job market but they need to narrow their focus to first get the interview and then they must use a consultative process during the interview to get offered the job. Here's how this process works.

  • Take a less is more approach to job hunting. Rather than applying to anything and everything, find 8-10 companies that seem to have positions available that best fit your skills and interests.
  • Do your research. For each company focus on their new product efforts or where they're trying to be more efficient. Your objective is to uncover business problems they're facing that you can solve.
  • Use non-traditional techniques to find the decision maker. Here are some hack-a-job ideas that don't involve applying directly. My favorite: Use a non-resume to get an audience with the decision and use your time in the meeting to conduct discovery.
  • Getting referred increases your odds by 5X. Networking is not about meeting as many people as you can. It's about getting a few people who can vouch for your performance to introduce you to a few other people.
  • Market demos, videos and teasers - not your resume. One person told me he put together a competitive analysis of a product line, sent it to the VP Marketing and landed an interview a few days later. He came up with the idea looking in an industrial journal with the product announcement.
  • Focus on total campaign results, not response rates. Sending out hundreds of resumes in the hope to get a 1-2% response rate is a waste of effort. Instead, use multiple approaches to arrange exploratory meetings with 70-80% of those companies on your target list.
  • Success is making advances, not having interviews. The measure of success in consultative selling is moving the process forward. For job seekers this equates to arranging a series of exploratory conversations or doing a small project to demonstrate your ability.
  • Make sure you're assessed properly. During the discovery phase you'll be asking the people you meet to clarify real job needs. During the interview your goal is to demonstrate you can do this work by providing examples of comparable accomplishments. This interview template and video will help you guide the process along.

Job seekers regularly ask for my advice on how to get better results when applying to job postings. My advice is always the same: Stop pushing the apply button. Instead get creative, find some companies that can benefit from your abilities and then go prove it to them. This process is called consultative job seeking. It takes a lot more work than applying directly but it represents the difference between hoping for an interview and getting a real job.

Talent Connect Analysis: The Future of Hiring is Where High Touch Meets High Tech

At a recruiting industry conference in 2011 I contended that the future of hiring was bleak. I predicted most companies would still be doing the wrong things differently in 2016, just faster.

Just last week I was at LinkedIn’s 2016 Talent Connect conference in Las Vegas and was asked for another prediction. I’m now much more optimistic. Below are some of my top takeaways from the event. Despite some apparent conflicting messages among the speakers, below the surface the theme was crystal clear: high tech must converge with high touch in order to hire top talent.

Existing processes must die.

I heard from multiple speakers that they’re throwing out their existing hiring process and for the interim going free-for-all. The truth is that processes built on the concept that IT systems should be designed to weed out the weak more efficiently, should have been discarded long ago. Talent leaders are now realizing that in a scarcity of talent situation you can’t use a transactional hiring process built on the assumption that there’s a surplus of talent.

Strategy drives process.

Many years ago as a rookie financial analyst I was showing some overhead slides when the CEO lambasted a group president saying that strategy drives tactics, it’s not the other way around. He then went on to say that it doesn’t matter if your tactics are great, if your strategy is wrong. Brian Fetherstonhaugh of OligvyOne Worldwide loudly and clearly reinforced the point. His point: Automation will soon replace recruiters except for those recruiters who embrace high touch. My takeaway: In a talent scarcity situation you need to build a high-touch consultative process designed to attract and nurture top talent.

Potential trumps experience.

Sir Richard Branson was the headliner here and he certainly delivered. The short reinterpretation of his enlightening talk: 1) hire mavericks who break the rules, 2) stretch your people and promote the heck out them, 3) if you want zero or negative progress listen to the government or your lawyers, 4) don’t look down, 5) start with a vision whether it’s a job, idea or a company and, 6) if you don’t force change the status quo will win and everyone else will lose.

Building at scale requires as much heart as head.

I give huge kudos to Amber Grewal at GE and Nellie Peshkov at Netflix. They both accomplished something remarkable which on the surface appears they each came from different planets. Below the surface it was clear to me that hiring success at scale requires exceptional recruiters, 100% executive support, the right processes, fully engaged hiring managers and inspirational TA leaders with a vision few see and the fortitude to achieve it.

The hiring manager is the king of the road.

The thing I find missing at all these recruiting-focused conferences is the acknowledgement that we don’t make the hiring decision – the hiring manager does. Regardless of the lofty strategies and the advanced technologies, without fully engaging the hiring manager hiring great people at scale is a non-starter. Bridging this gap is the key to a high tech, high touch tomorrow.

However, this is the shift I now see coming. One of the world’s largest firms hires 25 thousand people per year. They told me their best hires are driven by the personal engagement of the hiring manager in combination with a clearly defined career opportunity. Their new mission: hire 25 thousand great people one great person at a time.

Use job branding to leverage the employer brand.

Employer branding needs to adapt to attract the more senior 3-, 4- and 5-star recruits. This is done through job branding by incorporating a number of different marketing ideas into all forms of recruitment advertising and career site design. It starts with the elimination of generic messages with ones customized for each job. The best of these customized messages tie the candidate’s intrinsic motivator directly to the job and then tie the job itself to some important company project, strategy or mission.

For example, one of my favorites is from the McFrank and Williams agency out of New York City: “Your meticulous attention to detail drives our profitability.” This was for a cost analyst that initially emphasized years of experience, being detailed-oriented and having a CPA.

For those companies and talent acquisition leaders willing to change the status quo, ignore their lawyers, break some rules, hire some mavericks and become truly strategic, the future looks bright for hiring top talent. The same is true for those recruiters who embrace high touch. Not surprising, it’s already here for those who spend more time on the phone and less on the computer.