This 5-Step Plan Can Virtually Eliminate Interviewer Bias

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 often the one not hired. Instead it’s the best presenter who usually gets the offer.

In this case success is problematic. This mistake is magnified 2X by not hiring the better person who just happened to not be as good an interviewee.

The impact of this double whammy problem is summarized in the Performance vs. Presentation grid. By changing the decision to hire or not hire based on performance – the horizontal arrow - you’ll eliminate both problems. Here’s how:

Define the job before defining the person doing the job.

Most job descriptions look like this list of more than 800 jobs on 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, and communication skills. Techies overvalue the depth of technical skills. Most interviewers quickly eliminate those who “just don’t fit,” using some nebulous criteria.

One way to overcome these biases is by using a scripted 30-minute interview for all candidates whether they make a good first impression or 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.

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: he or she is 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 ineffective long ago although it took a huge study by Googlebefore these questions were shown to be useless. I had a former general manager 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 process is too transactional.

Filling jobs with those who are the most skilled is much different than hiring the strongest person possible. The former is largely a box-checking exercise with the price determined by supply and demand. The latter involves spending more time with fewer candidates focusing on their past performance, their upside potential and ensuring their intrinsic motivators map to the real job. 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.

When people are hired based largely on their presentation skills and affability, their on-the-job success is likely to be random and erratic. While it’s difficult to assess the invisible cost of not hiring the better person, it’s not hard to justify its importance. After you do it a few times, you’ll recognize why it’s worth whatever effort it takes.

9 Outlandishly Simple Steps for Minimizing Interviewer Bias

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.

10 Simple Techniques to Eliminate Interviewer Bias

It's okay to trust your gut after after conducting an objective interview, but trusting it too soon is a recipe for a hiring mistake. 

People who are honest with themselves recognize they often make judgments about people they’re hiring based on insufficient, flawed or biased data. But few interviewers are honest with themselves. Most let their emotions, biases and flawed thinking dominate who gets hired. Worse, most people don't even recognize the problem.

I just read an article on Fast Company regarding the negative consequences of this type of decision-making. As the article (indirectly) points out, interviewers make mistakes by overvaluing the quality of the candidate’s first impression, level of assertiveness, affability and communication skills. Mistakes are also made if the interviewer is overly confident in his or her own interviewing skills or uses cloudy judgment like assuming attending a prestigious university or technical brilliance is a prerequisite or predictor of success.

Based on 35 years of interviewing thousands of candidates I’d suggest that more than 50% of hiring errors are attributed to these types of issues. So if you or someone you know is less than honest when it comes to recognizing their own biases, try these ideas out the next time you or they interview a candidate.

10 Ways to Become an Honest and Objective Interviewer

  1. 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 the next time you meet a candidate. Controlling your biases starts by recognizing you have them.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Measure 1st impression at end of 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.
  5. No 2s. The Performance-based Hiring process I advocate uses a 1-5 scale to rank candidates on the 10 factors that best predict on-the-job performance. A Level 2 is someone who’s competent but not motivated to do the work required. By spending extra time on determining what motivates a candidate to excel, you’ll be able to tell the difference between social energy and true work ethic.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Use evidence, not emotions, to assess the person. Unless backed up with evidence, words like “feel,” “think,” “gut” and “not sure” are evidence of emotional and biased decision-making. “While the candidate is quiet, the fact that he was assigned to two cross-functional leadership teams reporting to the COO on critical projects indicates strong team skills,” represents how evidence should be collected and used to make decisions.
  9. 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. This waiting will be a lot easier if you do all of the above first. Then don’t be surprised if nervous candidates become less nervous and outgoing candidates become less impressive.
  10. Divide and conquer to systematize bias out of the selection process. Don’t let anyone have a full yes or not vote on whom gets hired. Instead assign each person on the interviewing team a subset of the factors in this Quality of Hire Talent Scorecard to “own.” During the debriefing session share everyone’s evidence. This way the team makes the hiring decision neutralizing the emotional bias of each team member.

Be honest with yourself. When it comes to hiring, recognize your biases and force them into the parking lot. This won’t compromise your standards of performance. Instead, it will open your eyes to a broader group of remarkable people who are more diverse, less traditional and more motivated to excel that you never even knew existed.