Learn how unconscious bias plays a part in bad interview  processes & how to work on removing it. (Episode 14)


Uncovering Unconscious Bias in Interviewing

Research shows that everyone thinks they’re a good interviewer. Surprised? So were we. Learn how unconscious bias plays a part in bad interview processes & how to work on removing it. (Episode 14)

Publish Date: December 11, 2019

Episode Length: 32 minutes

/ Resources / Podcasts / Uncovering Unconscious Bias in Interviewing

In this Episode

Research shows that everyone thinks they’re a good interviewer. Surprised? We were, too. In this episode, we discuss how unconscious bias plays a part in bad interviewing and selection processes and how you can work toward removing it.


Beth Almes: Hey there leaders, our topic today on the Leadership 480 Podcast is one that most of us could probably sit around and swap war stories about because we've all made really bad mistakes here. And that topic is interviewing.

So for all the automation we have now in hiring systems, there's still this incredibly human element to hiring that comes down to the interview. But we're all human, right? And people aren't perfect, and that's where a lot of us get into trouble.

So as a special treat today, I have the expert on interviewing here with me, Katy Campbell. Katy has spent a big portion of her career working on systems and training people to hire better candidates. Welcome, Katy.

Katy Campbell: Well thank you. I'm happy to be here.

Beth Almes: So I started talking a little bit about automation. You know, that's kind of the big thing these days. Like can we overcome the human element and use automation? Would you ever hire someone without interviewing them? Just trust the robots?

Katy Campbell: Oh gosh. No. Personally, I would not do that. I think that the reason that the interview is so important is because we really need to hear about what the candidate has done in the past, how they've behaved, how they've worked, how they've gotten work done, and there's just no way to do that with automation. So if we're thinking about like a screening tool that screens for key words or something, that's great for a screening process, but that still doesn't tell you or give you really a line of sight into what that person has done in the past or how they behave on a daily basis.

Katy Campbell: And that's why the interview is so critical. And if you think about it, every company relies on interviewing in the selection process. I mean, they have to, because otherwise, they would be hiring, like I said, for keywords or for knowledge and experience, which you can get off a resume, but they still wouldn't know what can that person do, what motivates them.

Beth Almes: That sounds like a crazy article. Like you're getting hired for keywords now.

Katy Campbell: Yeah.

Beth Almes: And I think that's part of this process. Like when I hire and I look at all these resumes out there and everything like that, like you can sort of tell a little bit about the person, but the interview just kind of changes everything.

Katy Campbell: Yeah, it does. It's really powerful. And there's been research that has just been released recently that shows that really everybody pads their resume.

Beth Almes: Well yeah, you're almost supposed to. Not lie, never lie-

Katy Campbell: Right.

Beth Almes: But you're supposed to make yourself look really good. And you also never put the bad things on your resume, right? Which sometimes, I have found you get to in the interview, people talk about times they messed up or failed. And sometimes it's actually a really good thing when you hear that from them and say, "Oh, I messed up, but here's how I fixed it." And you're like, "Wow. I mean, it was a mistake at the time. But look at what you did to overcome that."

Katy Campbell: Yeah, absolutely. And you can understand the circumstances and were the circumstances out of the control of this individual, and how did they make lemonade out of lemons and all of that stuff, which you really just can't get from a resume.

Beth Almes: So knowing then that the interview is super important, that human element that comes into it, the thing that always comes to my mind though is that, and why I think we try to eliminate this part of the process, is that there's still a huge aspect of bias there.

Katy Campbell: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Beth Almes: And sometimes I think like the interview comes down to, do they like me?

Katy Campbell: Right.

Beth Almes: You know, do they like me? So do you think it's possible? Can interviewers be unbiased?

Katy Campbell: Well, I don't think any of them of us can be unbiased entirely because we have biases that are sort of mental shortcuts that we use to basically keep us safe. And so, from our experience or from our preferences, we sort of know how something is going to play out or we do tend to jump to conclusions sometimes.

Katy Campbell: So I don't think any of us can be unbiased, but we can definitely guard against it in the interview process. So that would mean things like making sure that there isn't bias actually built in to the interview or to the interviewing system. An example of that would be, "Well, I only look at candidates from a certain university," or, "I only look at someone who has this degree," or something like that. So we can sort of expand our thinking around what we're looking for and not have those biases sort of built into the system. But we can also, just as individual interviewers, be aware of our own biases and try to get past that.

Now a couple of interesting things, because we each have biases, the best approach that I've found for interviewing is to have multiple interviewers. And so, if I'm on a team of three interviewers and I'm gathering data from the candidate, and then you in a separate interview are gathering data and so on, then as interviewers, we can sit down with our data and talk that data through. And if I have a bias because, let's go back to the university example, somebody went to my Alma mater so I've already put a halo on their head-

Beth Almes: Yeah.

Katy Campbell: Then the person across the table from me can say, "Katy, you're a little hung up on that, and let's look at what the data tells us."

Beth Almes: And I think that part of the process is so important. Because I've worked in organizations before where it was just the manager and they kind of made the decision about who's on their team. And obviously the manager is super important and their opinion matters more than anyone else's, but at the same time, when I've done it then with multiple interviewers, and I'm now like so reliant on that. I'm so curious like, "Okay, here's what I thought of this candidate. What did you guys think? Was that your same experience?"

And definitely I've had like multiple occasions where it's like I thought that somebody was maybe a great fit and somebody else was like, "Honestly, they could not tell me one good thing they had done in this area," or vice versa, where I was like, "I didn't get a good answer from them on this question," and they're like, "Oh, they told me wonderful stories about how they completed this."

And it has helped tremendously. Even just for my own [inaudible : 26] like, "Okay, I think I actually made the right decision here."

Katy Campbell: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. And I think that when you get those multiple perspectives, you not only drum out the bias, but it actually makes you a better interviewer because you're paying attention now. In that one on one interview, you're not putting your pen down and saying, "Oh, Beth is awesome. She has everything we need," but rather, you think, "Well I'm going to be questioned about this by other interviewers, so in order to keep me honest, I better be taking notes. I better have some data to back up that glowing review of Beth." You know?

Beth Almes: That is also true. I never used to take notes in my interview. I mean now, you know, I work here and we have a system for doing it and everybody takes their notes and under like specific sections, and like before, we just kind of discussed it. If you had another candidate, even if you had another interview where you just were like, "I don't know, what'd you think?"

Katy Campbell: Yeah.

Beth Almes: And just gave overall impressions. And now I'm like, "Oh, if I don't show up with notes, I will be embarrassed. I will be the one who showed up not prepared." And inevitably, you know, you don't remember all of the details until you go back to the notes and you're kind of like, "Oh, that's right. That was a great point they made."

Katy Campbell: Yeah, "That was a great point," or, "That wasn't so impressive. Now that I'm not sitting across from that person, I'm thinking about that again."

Beth Almes: Which is for those good storytellers too. Because sometimes, when I look back, sometimes somebody me swept up in a story and I'm like, "Yeah, you killed it out there," and then I looked back to the notes and I'm like, "When they told the story, there wasn't a single thing that they said that they did in this." I was all excited about the story. They didn't mention a single action they took to fix the problem.

Katy Campbell: Yes, exactly. Yeah. So we want to make sure as interviewers that we're paying attention, that we're getting good data. And another thing that we really want to make sure that we don't do is meet prematurely with other interviewers. So if I'm coming out of my interview and you just had an interview with the same candidate an hour earlier, for us to sort of meet up at the water cooler and say, "Hey, what'd you think?" That in and of itself can sort of poison the well. Because if you say, "I wasn't impressed at all, I actually thought that that candidate was lying to me," and I had a completely different experience, now I'm already biased.

So what we ask interviewers to do is to sort of sit quietly with their own interview notes and rate the candidate in certain skill areas or competencies before they ever talk to another interviewer, so that their rating is really based on data and not on some impressions that I got from you, some impressions you got from me.

Beth Almes: Yeah. That is super hard to do, especially if your other interviewers are close colleagues or people you know well, but it makes a lot of sense, you know? So scoring someone.

But I want to ask you a little bit about the questions, the types of questions to ask. So when we talk about bias and the questions you ask in interviews, you know, one of the first things that comes to my mind is some of those questions that sort of border on illegal-

Katy Campbell: Yeah.

Beth Almes: And like the horror stories of those kinds of questions, right?

Katy Campbell: Yeah.

Beth Almes: So what kinds of questions should you not be asking in the interview?

Katy Campbell: Oh, that's a great question. So those sensitive, potentially illegal questions need to be avoided at all costs. And the way that you'll know whether you're asking a sensitive or potentially illegal question is first of all, is it relevant to the job? So if I ask you how many kids you have or, "Isn't that a parochial school that your kids go to" or whatever, none of that has anything to do with the job. And, I could be opening myself up to a discrimination case because, without meaning to, I've asked you maybe about your religion, about your marital status, I may be jumping to conclusions about how willing you are to travel. So if it doesn't have anything to do with the job, just don't ask it that. That's a good rule of thumb.

Beth Almes: Yeah. I kind of remember that because I remember a long time ago, like they would give the advice, well, okay, not that long ago, but like the advice for women, like don't wear an engagement ring to your interviews.

Katy Campbell: Oh.

Beth Almes: Like at one point I was interviewing, I was not married yet, but I was engaged, and some people were like, "Don't wear an engagement ring because they will be like, 'She's obsessed with wedding planning. She's not going to be focused on the job.'"

Katy Campbell: Oh no.

Beth Almes: And then you're like, "That can't be true advice."

Katy Campbell: Yeah.

Beth Almes: But what if it is, is that a solid thing to do? It's weird, you know?

Katy Campbell: Yeah.

Beth Almes: Thinking about that, but that was the honest advice because they're like, "They will make assumptions if they see that."

Katy Campbell: Oh gosh. Well I have to take a moment on that one. That's awful.

Beth Almes: And I mean, that was from like friends, that wasn't from like-

Katy Campbell: Yeah.

Beth Almes: But like there was honest advice out there at the time.

Katy Campbell: Yeah.

Beth Almes: They're like, "Don't do that. They'll assume you're just not going to be focused."

Katy Campbell: [crosstalk : 56].

Beth Almes: And then there's kind of like the flip questions too I've seen, like they're not illegal, but they're just not related to the job.

Katy Campbell: Yeah. Yes. And I call those, in some cases, I call those brain teasers. So sometimes you'll hear questions that are like, "What kind of animal are you?" Or, "Would you rather have legs as long as your fingers, or fingers as long as your legs?" That kind of thing. And those are a complete waste of time, first of all, because they're not predictive of anything. And why do you think, let me ask you a question, why do you think that interviewers ask those kinds of questions?

Beth Almes: Well I don't know. You know, they have like those trick questions. I mean, I think it's to get at their thought process-

Katy Campbell: Yeah.

Beth Almes: Of how do you solve a problem? But you know, putting people on the spot is always so challenging, but I think they just want to see how you're thinking.

Katy Campbell: Yeah. I think that's exactly right. And I've had people tell me, "Well, I'm testing creativity," or, "I'm testing problem-solving." The problem with that is that you are not a psychologist, and so when you put yourself in the position of asking those kind of bizarre questions, you are the sole arbiter of what a good and a bad answer is. So if I say, "Beth, what kind of animal are you?" and you say, "I'm a lion," well then I, as the interviewer, am either going to say, "That's great, we need more fierce lions on our team," or, "Oh my gosh, she's so aggressive and that's so scary." So-

Beth Almes: When what I really meant was that, like a lion, I enjoy sleeping all day.

Katy Campbell: Exactly. So we want to be careful of those. They're really not predictive of anything-

Beth Almes: Yeah.

Katy Campbell: And they really only serve to make that interviewer feel smart. That's really all that's happening there. So you want to steer clear of those sensitive questions or brain teasers, or even the hypothetical questions like, "Say I have a meeting tomorrow and I need my PowerPoint presentation done, are you going to work late? What would you do?" Those aren't really predictive of anything either because we know the candidate wants a job-

Beth Almes: Right.

Katy Campbell: And so they're going to tell you whatever they think you want to hear.

Beth Almes: I remember I had one candidate too that I hadn't, this was a long time ago, but I remember, you know, my boss at the time had wanted to hire him, and in his mind, he said, "Well, he's a swimmer and you know how swimmers are, because swimmers, to be a great swimmer you have to be really precise, they have to track every movement, so I think when he writes things, he's probably going to be really precise and really focused on the details," and he was making all these connections. And I remember thinking, "Yes, but he openly told me he doesn't deal well with criticism and that's just not going to fly."

Katy Campbell: Yeah.

Beth Almes: We don't need him to swim, we need him to [inaudible : 13].

Katy Campbell: Right. Exactly.

Beth Almes: So I was also thinking about the candidates that, you know, often seem great, their resume often meets all the qualifications, so you ask them all the questions, you follow all the rules, you know, stick to the good topics, but your guts just saying they're not a good fit. What about those situations?

Katy Campbell: Well, it's interesting. I think that the term fit, either cultural fit or organizational fit has been misused and abused a little bit in the last couple of decades, and it went from meaning something very specific, which I'll tell you about in a minute, to being misinterpreted as, "That person isn't going to fit in, and so I don't know that that person would be comfortable in this environment. I don't know, because that person wears some kind of religious head dress, they're not going to feel comfortable here because nobody else does that."

That, we've sort of perverted the fit word to mean fitting in. And that's really dangerous, because what happens when we do that is we end up hiring people that fit the template, that are just like us, or as you said, people that we like, you know, who gave a good interview and they were fun.

So we need to think about fit as, what are the requirements of the job, what are the circumstances of the job, and what has this person told me that would make me believe that that person wants to do what's required in this job. So it has everything to do with the candidate and what they find satisfying and if they are going to enjoy the circumstances in the mode of operation-

Beth Almes: Right.

Katy Campbell: Rather than whether I think that they're going to fit in with the group or whether I think they're going to fit in with me.

Beth Almes: So kind of like, for example, like if the job is there's a ton of travel involved and the person says, "I don't really enjoy going to new places," so that's fair. That's kind of motivational fit. Like if you don't like traveling, you will not like this job that requires traveling.

Katy Campbell: That's right.

Beth Almes: But if it's more like, "I'm not particularly outgoing," and everyone else in the office is fun, but the job doesn't require you to do that, that may not be a barrier for the person.

Katy Campbell: Mm-hmm (affirmative). That's right. And so what we want to do as organizations is have an actual fit profile that we're hiring to, and that includes the circumstances under which the job has to be done, the mode of operation of the company, that sort of thing, the non-negotiables like travel or shift work or something like that, and we are measuring against those fit facets, we would call them, that are already established. And we would be measuring all of the candidates against the same fit facets for the same position.

And so, what that helps us to do is ask questions, for example, if I said to you, "Beth, tell me about a time when you had a lot of travel in your job and how satisfying or unsatisfying was that?" you will tell me, "Well, I had a lot of travel in my last job and I decided I really didn't like that," and then I can put you up against that profile-

Beth Almes: Sure.

Katy Campbell: And if travels in the job, I know that you're probably not a good fit.

Beth Almes: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Katy Campbell: Yeah, but we do have to establish those fit facets, otherwise we're just really going off of our gut and whether we like the person and whether we think the person's going to fit in.

Beth Almes: This is Beth Almes with Katy Campbell: and today we are talking about a super challenging topic, interviewing. So the thing is, like when I think of times when I've had to fill roles, I've often been super anxious to fill them very quickly. And it's good, you know, to go through the whole process, doing the multiple interviewer thing, taking all the questions. It sounds time-consuming, you know? And this is the Leadership 480 Podcast. We need to make time more efficient. We all know how precious those hours are. How do you make it go faster?

Katy Campbell: Yeah.

Beth Almes: So I don't know if you have an answer to that, but make it go faster.

Katy Campbell: Well, I have a couple of answers to it. It's sort of, pay me now or pay me later, right?

Beth Almes: Yeah.

Katy Campbell: So if you are making a quick decision, you're just keeping your fingers crossed that it's the right decision. And when that decision doesn't go the way or that candidate is not as successful as you hoped they would be, now you're in a position of having to do performance discussions or having to fire that person and rehire someone else. So there's more time involved at the back end in activities that you don't want to have anything to do with, right?

Beth Almes: Right.

Katy Campbell: So you want to spend the time up front and do your due diligence to make sure that you're getting the right person in that job.

Beth Almes: I think it's kind of like the horror of the six month hire, where like you hire them and it's going, and like you spent all this time onboarding them, because that's exhausting. and then you spent all this investment, and then in like six months it's not working out. And then what do you do? Now you start over, and by the end of it, you've lost like a year.

Katy Campbell: Yeah. You've lost a year and you've lost big money too because, on average, going through that whole process of hiring and onboarding and training and then losing that person, you've spent about two and a half times the salary of the job. So that's why you want to make sure that you're making the right decision every time.

Beth Almes: Can I justify hiring two candidates, knowing it'll cost me twice as much if I make the wrong decision anyway?

Katy Campbell: Whatever works.

Beth Almes: Probably not budget-wise, but-

Katy Campbell: Yeah, but, you know, it's really like making a capital investment. Because you're hiring someone, it's a big ticket item, right? The salary is important and you're going to have to live with that decision for a long time. So it's not unlike buying a house or buying a car, and yet somehow, we don't approach hiring people in the same way that we would research some other purchase and have a business case for some other purchase where we're buying a new truck for the company. We would probably put more thought and more time into that than we do on the people side. And that's always confused me, because the people investment is really at the heart of every organization.

Beth Almes: So Katy, something you said actually triggered a thought here. You mentioned how much time and effort we put into looking for a house. And I remember when I was house hunting years ago, talking a lot with the realtor about things. When we look for a house, there are things you can change and then the things you can't change.

Katy Campbell: Right.

Beth Almes: Like you know, easy things, you can change a paint color, like not a problem. You can upgrade a kitchen, a little bit more work, but can always be done. And then there were things like, you know, you're never going to have an open floor plan in this house, it's structurally not possible, things like that.

Beth Almes: And I think that's a great analogy for when you're looking at candidates as well. Because I know in a lot of my discussions about candidates it was like, "Well, there's things they don't know or haven't done, but I think they could do them." And then there are things that I'm like, you know, I want to say they have potential, but I just don't know. How do you sort of sort out the difference between, when you're looking at candidates, what can change or how they can grow versus what's going to be hard to change?

Katy Campbell: Yes, I think that's a great question because what we would say at DDI is that there are some competencies or skills that can be trained and some that just can't be. And so when we're looking at candidates, if we have someone who doesn't have a lot of experience with, say, delegation, or didn't give us a lot of examples around coaching, well, it doesn't mean they can't do it. It might mean that they haven't had the opportunity to demonstrate it. But those two things that I've just described are trainable skills.

Beth Almes: Yeah.

Katy Campbell: So delegating, coaching, all sorts of things can be trained. So you'll want to view a candidate who has some deficiencies through that lens, can they be trained to do it?

Now, if they have a deficiency around more of a personal attribute like integrity or, you know, they have very low energy and you need someone with high energy, those are things that can't be trained. And so those would be more like deal-breakers, whereas things that can be trained, you may find that you do have the resources and the time to train them or to coach them to do certain things. So there are deficiencies but it doesn't make them a bad candidate.

Beth Almes: Yeah.

Katy Campbell: Or, as the hiring manager, you may say, "I don't have the resources. I don't have the people on the team who can actually coach this person or train this person, so for me, they're not my candidate."

Beth Almes: Yeah. Sometimes you do need that kind of ready to go person who is, "I need you to be able to do this day one." And then sometimes, you have to make compromises too to say, "Well, I'm not finding that person out there so what can we train? What can we not train?"

Katy Campbell: Yes. Exactly.

Beth Almes: But I like your point about what people can learn versus what's really hardwired in those personality tendencies, that there are going to be maybe certain things that they will always not enjoy. Now can you get to those questions in the interview without being too personal?

Katy Campbell: Absolutely. So if we're talking about the competencies, so have they demonstrated delegation?

Beth Almes: Sure.

Katy Campbell: Have they dealt with demonstrated coaching? We can ask questions about, "Tell me about a time that you coach someone on a team or project team. How did you do that? Walk me through that," and we can get some data on their coaching behaviors. But if it's more of a personal attribute, I would defer to, "Tell me about a time that you worked in a very fast-paced environment. How satisfying or unsatisfying was that for you?" And let them answer.

Katy Campbell: And the one thing that we want to do, especially around what we call fit, is not ask yes or no questions. "So this job requires high energy. Do you have that?"

Beth Almes: Yes, of course. What are you going to answer? No?

Katy Campbell: Right. "This job requires such and such. That's okay with you, right?" We don't want to lead them, but we want to ask satisfying and unsatisfying. Tell me a story or, you know, what, when and why was this thing satisfying or unsatisfying to you? And people will generally tell you the truth. They are experts in what they like and what they don't like, and they don't want to be caught in a job where there are a lot of things they don't like either.

Beth Almes: Yeah.

Katy Campbell: So you know, usually they will be very candid with you on that topic.

Beth Almes: Great. And so one last question I'll ask is something we ask everyone on the podcast, and that's about leadership. So hiring is a huge part of leadership, and who you work for, who works for you, all of those things. Can you tell me about a moment of leadership that deeply affected you? Good or bad? Just something that kind of changed the way you thought or maybe the course of your career.

Katy Campbell: Oh. Actually, yeah. And this isn't even about hiring, or maybe it is. When I was new at DDI, I had to go to talk to someone who was a senior leader who I had a lot of respect for. I was pretty sure that they didn't know who I was, and why would they? And I went and talked to this person and I got some coaching, and he was reviewing some things that I had written.

And at the end of the meeting, he said, "How do you like it here?" And I said, "Oh, I like it very much." And he said, "That's great because I've heard really good things about you and I think you're going to do really well at DDI." And I went from thinking, "Well this guy's never even heard of me, I'm just new. I'm just this low level person," but that always stuck with me because what it said to me was someone knows who I am and they think I'm doing a good job obviously, but it also was so powerful because that kind of encouragement, as small as it was, was huge to me.

And it just always let me know that positive reinforcement, maintaining or enhancing someone's self-esteem is always going to win. That's always going to be the right thing to do. And a great way to spend your time is by encouraging people and letting them know that you've heard of them and that you're impressed by them. That's never going to be a bad choice. And so it stuck with me for... This leader has been gone now from DDI for awhile, but I'll never forget him because that was just such a kind thing that I needed to hear at the time.

Beth Almes: Yeah, what a great moment of leadership to have that amount of impact. And they may not have even remembered, but it was that moment that really mattered for someone else. And that's really what this is all about in the Leadership 480 Podcast.

So Katy, thank you for a great conversation today, and thank you to our listeners. We know your time is valuable and we appreciate you sharing some of your precious 480 with us. This is Beth Almes reminding you to make every moment of leadership count.