Many years ago, I was sitting in an interview panel along with two colleagues trying to recruit someone for a junior level position. Both colleagues were senior to me and had more experience in recruiting. There was one candidate that we interviewed via video conference as he was in another city. The interview proceeded and we went through the list of questions. I listened keenly to the answers and noted my points down. I was happy with the relevant and confident answers he gave. After we said goodbye, I turned to my colleagues to ask them for their opinion. I was surprised that they were not in favour of him. They felt that he did not put in any effort to prepare for the interview. On probing further, they stated that they did not like the fact that he was sitting cross-legged on his bed and had not made an effort to find a table or sit in a room that had better lighting. His phone, from which he took the call, was propped up on a pillow and slid down 2 or 3 times. I was quite stumped as I had not noticed some of these points or had chosen to ignore them. I believed his responses should have been the only thing that mattered. I however did not say anything. This was pre-covid times and I felt my colleagues, being more senior to me, would know better how to assess virtual interviews.
In retrospect I now realise that some prejudices and biases had crept into the hiring process. Once one prejudice or dislike had set in (sitting cross-legged), my colleagues kept finding more reasons to justify their decision (darkness of the room, phone on the pillow, could have dressed more neatly, etc.). They were exhibiting confirmation bias. My inability to speak up and share my views due to the fear of sounding stupid led me to become a victim of conformity bias.
Bias is normal. It is natural for people to like or dislike others, sometimes with no reason, and are therefore not conscious of their bias or prejudice. Some biases can lead to judgements that are positive and can protect us. But biases are mostly based on stereotypes, instead of knowledge of the individual or their circumstance. It develops at a young age and can cause an individual to treat others poorly. Our brain does not like to expend energy and is always looking for shortcuts to form judgements and finish the thinking process.
A research by McKinsey carried out in 2015, 2018 and in 2019 all confirm that diverse teams perform better. And biases at the recruitment level can result in bad decisions and hinder the ability to form a diverse and effective team. It is therefore imperative that organisations work on curbing biases.
Below are some of the biases that can affect recruitment –
- Attribution Bias – Attribution bias is where we judge and make assumptions about a person’s behaviour based on something that they did. For example, if a candidate arrives late for the interview, we assume he must have poor time management skills.
- Halo Effect / Horn Effect – Halo Effect is having a good impression about an individual based on one attribute and then believing that they must be good at everything else too. Horn Effect is the opposite of Halo Effect, where we view a person negatively based on one single trait. For example, we may develop a Halo effect and think that a candidate who is quite friendly must be good at the job, or you might develop a Horn Effect because they were very shy.
- Confirmation Bias – Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for information that will confirm our pre-existing beliefs. This also means we will ignore any evidence that contradicts our belief as was the case with my two colleagues.
- Conformity Bias – Everybody wants to fit in. Conformity bias happens when despite having a different opinion to the majority, you decide to change that opinion to match with the majority. This is what I did when I was part of the interview panel.
- Sunk Cost Fallacy – When everyone is aware of the amount of time and effort that has gone into the recruitment process, they find it difficult to change their mind or quit the process. For example, after interviewing several candidates, we may feel that none of the candidates are suitable. But because of the number of people and the amount of time invested, we feel obliged to hire at least one of them.
- Gender Bias – This is the tendency to prefer one gender over another. This has become a huge issue in recruiting and affects every stage of the recruitment process.
- Affinity Bias – Affinity Bias, also known as Similarity Bias, is the tendency to like and favour people who are similar to us. And because they are like us, we believe they have positive traits and qualities. This bias crops up when we have to hire someone who will ‘fit into’ the organisation.
- Contrast Effect/Bias – This happens when we compare two candidates in a non-objective manner. This usually happens when we see an excellent CV or interview a great candidate and then start comparing the other candidates to that individual, instead of assessing them for the role that they have applied for.
So, is it possible to completely remove biases? Not really, as biases are required to some degree for survival. Even the smartest and the most self-aware people exhibit biases in their judgement. Also, society conditions us over a period of time and some of these are deeply ingrained. While we can train our employees to identify their biases, it requires a delicate balance between self-preservation and empathy for individuals to keep those biases in check. At the organisational level, understanding the different biases that affect the different stages of the recruitment process will minimize the biases.
Below are a few strategies that leaders can use to prevent bias in the hiring process –
Drafting the Job Advert
From the moment a job advert goes live, there is a possibility that it favours some people over others. Some terminology appeals to certain groups of people over others. For example – words like ‘decisive’ and ‘competitive’ appeal more to men and words like ‘empathetic’ and ‘people person’ connect more with women. Employers should draft job adverts using neutral language. Using gender decoder tools will highlight subtle gender biased words, which recruiters can then either remove or reword.
Use technology for screening CVs and candidates
Many large organisations use technology to screen resumes and candidates. This has been proven to work as it removes bias by completely eliminating the human factor and hiding words that reveal gender, age, race, nationality, etc. Also, it saves time given the volume of resumes that organisations have to sift through. There are tools that allow employers to create blind tests for candidates. The scores from these tests are used alongside the CVs to shortlist. However, be wary of some AI tools as these rely on past data, which means that if there were bad recruiting practices in the past, the machine is likely to duplicate it.
Having a diverse hiring panel will get more diverse people into the organisation. Having an independent panel member who does not belong to the same department that is recruiting the candidate will make the hiring decision more neutral. The panel must discuss before-hand on what they are looking for in a candidate. They must discuss possible biases and must feel free to disagree with each other to avoid conformity bias.
Have Standardised Interviews
Have a structured interview where all candidates are asked the same questions. Write down notes and use a scorecard to grade the applicant’s response to each question against a pre-determined scoring system. Tally the scores before the next candidate walks into the room. This not only minimises biases and avoids stereotyping but allows recruiters to take informed and unanimous decisions by comparing the candidates capabilities instead of their personalities. If the panel is unable to come to a decision on the right candidate, then they must not be tempted by ‘sunken cost fallacy’ and choose the wrong individual. Be brave enough to go back to the drawing board and run the job advert again.
The above steps will help make the hiring process fairer and more inclusive. It’s unwise to think that we can overcome biases, but we can create systems that will mitigate its impact on the recruitment process. Using technology and combining it with regular diversity training will help recruiters and hiring managers identify the blind spots.
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