What is Implicit Bias – and How Can Structured Interviews Help?

The interview is often a pivotal step in the hiring process, requiring much time and effort on the part of a hiring manager. This is often the first time the manager meets face-to-face with the candidate. It is after the interview stage that hiring decisions tend to be made and counted on.

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The bad news:

The interview is often a pivotal step in the hiring process, requiring much time and effort on the part of a hiring manager. This is often the first time the manager meets face-to-face with the candidate. It is after the interview stage that hiring decisions tend to be made and counted on.

Without careful pre-planning, post-interview decisions are often flawed: based in part, or entirely, on qualities unrelated to future job performance. The unfortunate reality is that without a structured process, interviews are systematically affected by bias. Regardless of your intentions, bias can influence your decisions and reduce your chances of selecting quality hires.

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What is bias?

Bias is favoring a thing, or person, over another in ways that are unfair, or irrelevant to the decision at hand. Biases come in all shapes and sizes, from the obvious and insidious to the silent and seemingly inconsequential. Biases are always in play, whether we are aware of them or not. When we are unaware of these biases, they are known as implicit biases. They serve a purpose: these feelings help us make safe choices when in potentially dangerous situations. For example, have you ever taken an alternate route when walking somewhere alone because you had a “gut feeling”? The problem is that biases can derail the critical decisions we have to make. Without being aware of it, we may assume a person is less intelligent or capable because of the way they dress, their accent, or even where they went to school. We may just have a “gut feeling” about a candidate and not know why. These assumptions are based on implicit bias.

What is implicit bias?

Implicit biases happen without us knowing and without our control, making them arguably the most dangerous type of bias. Even making a fair hiring or promotion decision, if implicit biases are not addressed, we may not make the best decision.

We ALL have biases. Every. Single. Person. This is because of the natural human tendency to organize and simplify our complicated world by finding patterns and categorizing. Biases are shaped by our experiences; just by existing in a social environment, we have been “learning” biases since we were born. However, this does not excuse biases; instead, it should further encourage us to work together to become more aware of our biases and put in place procedures to limit their effects.

These implicit biases do not leave the interviewing process untouched. Even with the best intentions and a standardized, structured interviewing procedure to mitigate the effect of bias, unconscious assumptions and decisions still sneak their way into the interview process and resulting hiring decisions.

Why should we be concerned?

1. The candidate experience: If applicants sense the bias, they will come away from the interview process with a poor impression of the company.

2. Poor performance: Traditional interviews and hiring procedures, unfortunately, are often no more accurate than flipping a coin. A significant contributor is a bias: contributing not only to higher turnover and decreased profitability.

3. Decreased organizational diversity: Implicit bias often leads hiring managers and interviewers to hire those similar to themselves.

4. Poor legal defensibility: An interview process heavily influenced by implicit bias leaves the door wide open for legal action.

What sources of implicit bias should we be watching out for?

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Stereotypes

Stereotypes are oversimplified assumptions about a person that results from group membership. These groups include those that are commonly considered like race, gender, and age, but also others like “people with tattoos,” “Big 10 University graduates,” or “parents.” For example, women who are known to have children are often assumed to be less committed to their jobs, while women without children are seen as less likable.

Intuition and Overconfidence

Intuition is “trusting your gut.” These snap decisions are made without conscious processing and driven by stereotypes, experience, and other intangibles. In the hiring process, intuition often takes the form of first impressions. Overconfidence is when we rely on our gut and don’t seek out new information. Both intuition and overconfidence make it harder to make the correct decision after all of the appropriate information has been gathered if the right choice differs from the intuitive one. For example, if you have a strong “gut feeling” that a candidate would be great for a position after meeting them, it may be harder to remove them from consideration after a failed cognitive ability test.

Contrast Effect and Anchors

The contrast effect is the tendency to compare the current candidate to the previous candidate (or previous hires), instead of against an objective standard. Anchoring is when a specific piece of information is used as a focal point for the hiring decision. For example, if the person previously in the role had a bachelor’s degree in marketing, this may be treated as an implicit requirement for the job, even if the position could be filled with candidates that have different backgrounds.

What are some examples of specific biases common to the hiring process?

Halo and Horn Effects

The halo effect happens when one particularly positive characteristic of a candidate puts any flaws in a better light. The horn effect is the opposite: a negative trait darkens the good qualities of a candidate. For example, when interviewing a candidate from an Ivy League school, the interviewer may excuse away poorly answered questions as an off day, whereas those same answers would be seen as a lack of qualification coming from someone with a different educational background.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is when we place most of our attention on what confirms our belief and don’t seek out or consider information that refutes or discredits what we believe. For example, if a hiring manager believes older people have a difficult time using technology, they may ignore repeated demonstrations of competency and instead focus-in on a moment of confusion.

Elderly person using laptop

Similar-to-me Bias

Similar-to-me – or officially, the similarity attraction bias, is the tendency to feel and act more positively toward a person with whom characteristics are shared. This may happen with demographic characteristics, attitudes, or preferences. For example, small talk during an interview might alert you to a shared interest in hockey – or a love of dogs, with a candidate. Later, when reviewing candidates, you remember this positive feeling more than the interview itself and hire the candidate because of it, not recognizing that the positive impression toward the candidate had nothing to do with their ability to perform.

Woman smiling

Beauty Bias

Beauty bias is the tendency to attribute more positive attributes to more attractive people (and to attribute less positive attributes to less attractive people). This may happen in a way that benefits an attractive candidate or in a way that is biased against them. For example, an attractive person may not be hired for a low-status job because the interviewer implicitly believes they would be unhappy in such a position, even if that candidate was the best fit for the job.

How can a structured hiring process and behavioral interviews help?

The first step to mitigating the effects of bias is to build a standardized hiring process with structured and behavioral interview guides. Structured interviewing saves managers’ time while increasing their ease and confidence in the process. Well-designed structured and behavioral interview guides hold candidates to the same objective standards, reducing the threat of implicit bias, while still fostering a connection with candidates. Proper interviewing builds a connection between managers and candidates around the mission and purpose of your company and culture. Building a rapport with potential candidates is crucial, but often rapport building takes the form of talking about personal (or even protected class related) information.

Set your team up for successful interviews: Pre-Employment Assessments and Skills Testing

Pre-employment assessments and skills testing highlight the strengths and weaknesses that could derail a candidate’s performance. Assessments can be used to reduce the applicant pool and automatically eliminate candidates with a statistically poor likelihood of success (based upon validated and proven assessments). Well-built assessment reports will also provide questions and information you can use to increase the accuracy of your interviews.
Recruiters, managers, and HR teams can be counseled to avoid social media searches and other information that could ignite bias. Screening platforms, like our partner, Career.Place, make blind review simple and effective. Your first review of candidates is powerful and sets a ceiling on the diversity of your applicant pool. As you build on your hiring process, it’s helpful to set and track goals for diversity, quality hires, turnover, and retention, and share your results across your team.

What can I do now to build a more effective hiring process and avoid implicit bias?

While there are no easy fixes for implicit bias, the first step is awareness. There are no quick fixes, but training and education can spark awareness of one’s assumptions and decisions: common biases, stereotypes, comparison with previous applicants, reliance on intuition, and overconfidence. You can provide instruction on how to build rapport and create a positive candidate experience through questions relevant to the job and your organizational culture.
The most significant change you can make is to begin structured and behavioral interviewing. An unstructured interview, without established questions and scoring methodology, is no more accurate than flipping a coin. Just as your team is committed to set operating procedures and standards to ensure consistent execution, they should be equally committed to following a process and meeting set standards for hiring. Begin by asking questions and gathering analytics on each step of your interview and hiring process. Reducing implicit bias can accelerate your chance of making quality hires, save time, and contribute to your goals related to key business results, retention, and diversity.

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This blog was written by Lindsey Freier, a PhD Student at Bowling Green State University’s nationally ranked Industrial-Organizational Psychology Program (and alma mater of our Managing Director, Jennifer Yugo!). As an intern at Corvirtus she provided analytics using our extensive employee experience data and selection tools and shared her research expertise on bias and team creativity. To learn more about Lindsey, connect with her on LinkedIn.

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