by Katy Campbell
Bias is big news these days. We’ve all read and heard about unconscious biases, and how they impact our interactions and cloud our decision-making. From hiring and promotion decisions to delegating tasks, our biases can seep into our daily work life and eventually undermine a culture of inclusion and diversity. We know we need to examine our biases, and keep them in check, but what if our biases are actually being enabled by our workplace processes?
Take hiring interviews as an example of a process that can be fertile ground for bias. Even if your hiring managers and other interviewers have been schooled in legal and illegal interview questions, your interview process may have “bias traps” built into it that you and your interviewers aren’t even aware of. Even seasoned hiring managers can fall prey to these bias traps simply because they masquerade as harmless—and legitimate—practices.
So, how can you know if bias traps undermine your interview process?
Here’s a system check to make sure that your processes aren’t getting in the way of making fair and accurate hiring decisions.
Are interviewers getting personal? Read any positive review of an interview experience on social media, and you’ll see the word, “conversational.” Candidates love a conversational approach, and what’s not to love? A conversation puts the candidate at ease and allows him or her to learn more about the position and the company and, in turn, the interviewer benefits from being able to interview a more comfortable, candid, and forthcoming candidate. Beware…there is a trap lying in wait.
Recently, while discussing the importance of the candidate experience with a group of hiring managers, one participant eagerly volunteered his approach: “I like to make candidates comfortable by engaging them in conversation. I’ll ask right off the bat, ‘Do you have kids?’ or, ‘What do you do in your free time?’” Another hiring manager piggybacked on that comment with, “I like to ask about hobbies to see if we have any common interests, and then talk about that.”
While a conversational approach can put candidates at ease, interviewers need to be made aware that there is a difference between having a conversation and engaging in non-job related small talk.
When interviewers ask questions that aren’t related to the job, they not only run the risk of hearing irrelevant information that plays into their own biases and colors their judgment (i.e., “Yay! He’s a stamp collector!”), but they can potentially land your organization in legal trouble. Interviewers should always build rapport with candidates, but never by asking personal questions.
Are interview questions relevant? Many hiring managers pride themselves on their go-to interview questions that they believe reveal everything they need to know about a candidate. These questions range from the simple (“Where do you see yourself in five years?”), to the strange (“What kind of animal are you?”)—and they can introduce bias into the hiring process, too!
Many interviewers believe that questions such as these provide insight into a candidate’s thought processes, problem-solving skills, creativity, or worldview, but the truth is, they play right into an interviewer’s biases. The interpretation of the answer is completely subjective, which means the interviewer acts as the sole arbiter of what is a “good” or “bad” answer.
Think about a female candidate who says she sees herself running the company in five years—is she an ambitious go-getter? An entitled egomaniac? A selfish and neglectful mother? It depends on who’s interpreting the answer.
Are you confusing “fit” with “fitting in?” How many times have you heard that a candidate was rejected because he or she was not a “good fit”? This could be a legitimate statement, or it could be a red flag that bias has crept into your hiring process.
Here’s a simple test: Was a candidate rejected because he or she found the tasks of the job or the company’s mission distasteful, annoying, or otherwise demotivating? Or, was the candidate deemed a poor fit because he or she was unlike the current employee population? Unfortunately, “fit” has degenerated into a catch-all phrase that interviewers may use to justify their own unconscious or conscious biases, resulting in a homogeneous workforce of people “just like us.”
One hiring manager I spoke with illustrated this pitfall brilliantly as he described his fit assessment this way: “I ask myself, ‘Is this someone I could sit next to on an international flight?’ and if the answer is yes, he’s a good fit.”
To mitigate bias, organizations need to clearly define and communicate what fit is and what it isn’t. Fit is the extent to which the characteristics of the organization or job are personally satisfying to the candidate. Fit is a measure of how much the candidate likes to do the job’s required tasks and resonates with the organization’s mission. Fit is not a subjective interviewer opinion of whether the candidate will “fit in” with the crowd.
Are you taking shortcuts? Pressure to fill a position can lead to hasty evaluations of candidates, and those hasty evaluations can mean relying on shortcuts marked by bias and snap judgments. In the race to the job offer finish line, interviewers can fall prey to making assumptions about candidates’ knowledge, abilities, and motivations, such as, “I know she’d love working with customers because she seemed friendly,” or, “It took him six years to graduate. That slow pace won’t work in our culture.”
While I can’t give you the gift of more time in your selection process, I can give you this advice: Make sure your interviewers are using their limited interview time to adequately understand what the candidate has done in the past, and how he or she has done it. Interviewers should ask thoughtful questions and follow-ups that allow candidates to tell their own stories in their own words. When interviewers take shortcuts by assuming…well, you know the adage.
Are your interviewers flying solo? Making a hiring decision is a lot like buying a house: If you make the wrong decision, it’s costly and you’ll have to live with it for a while. The sheer weight of the consequences is why house hunters rarely fly solo. They enlist trusted friends, family, and significant others to provide perspective and wisdom to help inform the best decision.
Like house hunters, interviewers must make significant decisions with very real consequences, which is why having more than one interviewer is necessary to keep interviewer biases in check and leverage diverse perspectives. Many organizations use a single interview in the interest of a speedy hiring process, but even the most self-aware well-intentioned interviewer has only his or her own interviewing experience with the candidate, and that limited experience could place a halo (or horns) on the job candidate, and lead to a biased decision.
If you must go the single-interviewer route, make sure the interviewer does a perspective check. Enlisting the help of a colleague to read over interview notes and discuss the content of the candidate’s responses can bring a fresh perspective and help the interviewer to get past their own biases.
The importance of structure
The best way to purge bias from your interviewing process is to make sure that your process is structured, that interviewers receive guidance (and training) on questions they should ask and those they should avoid, and that a job-centric approach is used to fairly and accurately evaluate candidate data gathered during interviews.
The less structured an interviewing process is, the greater the likelihood it will allow personal biases to creep in and shape the quality of your workforce. A few key adjustments, that begin with seeking honest answers to the questions above, will transform those influences, increase retention, and propel your business.
Katy Campbell is happily based in her adopted hometown of Pittsburgh, Pa., in DDI’s world headquarters. As the Global Product Manager for DDI’s Targeted Selection, she is passionate about helping organizations select, develop, and retain the very best talent. When she’s not working, chances are good Katy’s listening to 80’s and 90’s music and singing along…loudly. She has never met a karaoke machine she didn’t like.
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