Interviewer bias, also known as interview bias or hiring bias, is a type of unconscious bias that clouds your ability to objectively evaluate applicants during the hiring process. It can lead to having an overly positive or negative image of candidates, based on factors that aren’t directly related to their skills or their ability to perform well at the position you’re looking to fill.
We’re hardwired to evaluate social situations quickly and make instant decisions based on limited information. Sometimes this can happen before you even interact with the other person. For example, you might have a positive image of them because they’re good looking, or because they went to the same university as you, or because they’re wearing your favorite color—and none of those things are related to their skills. Or you might see someone as less skilled because of their accent, or a 1-year career break they took.
In the hiring process, you have a lot more information available to you, however. Deciding who to hire based on your first impressions and unconscious bias is counterproductive. This can skew the hiring process and result in bad hires, and cost your company time, money, and talent.
Biases are directly related to intuition and feelings, rather than to reason and logic, according to Daniel Kahneman, Nobel laureate in Economics. The two modes of thinking (intuition vs. reason) govern our decision-making process, but our intuitive reactions can—and often do—override analytical thinking. During the interviewing process, hiring managers are susceptible to bias, especially if they don’t make a conscious effort to limit their influence.
So, what are the different types of biases? And how do you make sure you’re not letting your biases decide for you?
Let’s look into the details.
What are the different types of interviewer bias?
Many types of biases could influence the hiring process—and hiring managers aren’t immune to them.
First impression bias
First impression bias is related to how a candidate presents themselves and behaves in the first few minutes of an interview. It’s one of the primary reasons behind bad hiring decisions. When you initially like someone, you tend to ask easier questions and look for things that confirm your positive impression.
It’s natural to feel more at ease with someone who shares the same culture as you. Cultural differences exist in how we express our emotions, too. According to a 2019 study by Lucy Zhang Bencharit., the way candidates share their excitement has a profound impact on hiring managers’ decisions. Candidates who shared a similar cultural background with the recruiters—and expressed emotions similarly to them—were hired more often. Foreign accent bias is also a form of cultural bias.
Gender and racial bias
Although companies with a diverse workforce are between 15% and 35% more likely to perform well in a given financial year, compared to national industry medians, gender, and racial bias are, unfortunately, still very present, both in the US and worldwide. Companies that do skill tests have the ability to hire a more diverse workforce.
Non-verbal bias is related to how you perceive candidates’ body language, the way they dress, and diverse non-verbal cues. These can include their ability to maintain eye contact, the strength of their handshake, or their posture, among others. For example, you might feel that a weak handshake is a red flag, but in fact, it doesn’t relate to candidates’ knowledge and experience—and can be learned.
Stereotyping is the assumption that someone will perform in a specific way in a job because they belong to a given group. Stereotypes can be related to the candidate’s nationality, ethnicity, gender, age, among other characteristics. For example, you could assume that a 50-year old system administrator is not knowledgeable of the latest DevOps trends, but their age has, in fact, nothing to do with their skills.
Generalization bias occurs when you believe that what the candidate did once would be what they always do in a similar situation. For example, if they were nervous during the interview, you might assume they’re always nervous.
When you have a well-defined first impression of someone, confirmation bias will push you to look for things that confirm your initial impression—and ignore the signs that disprove it.
Recency bias means remembering your last candidates better, while not clearly recalling the first interviews you did for a given position. This could mean that the last person you see might feel like a better fit for the job—simply because you remember them better. Take detailed notes and review them often to not fall prey to recency bias.
Physical attractiveness bias
The bias related to the perceived physical attractiveness of candidates is most often unconscious—but might be particularly strong. A 2011 study by Christian Pfeifer, on physical attractiveness, employment, and earnings, concluded that people who are perceived as more attractive are hired more often and earn better wages. According to his data, differences were significant.
Contrast bias means that you’re prone to comparing the last candidate to the one you interviewed before that. You anchor their performance and your expectations to the performance of another interviewee, which means that your judgment is not neutral. If the previous candidate did poorly, the next one might seem a much better fit—even if they’re not actually qualified for the role.
Similarity (“Like me”) bias
When an applicant is similar to you in some way, this might make you feel like they’d be a good fit for the position—even if they don’t meet some of your key criteria. Be wary of giving preference to candidates simply because they share your interests or opinions, or because you could imagine getting along well with them.
Halo/horn effect bias
A halo/horn effect bias occurs when you focus too heavily on a given positive or negative characteristic of the candidate and ignore the rest. The trait you’re fixating on can overshadow the rest and cloud your judgment. This happens, for example, if a candidate looks relaxed and confident during the interview, or is generally likable, making you assume they have the necessary skills for the position.
If the hiring manager has a pre-set idea on what the perfect candidate should be like, they’ll anchor applicants’ performance on that specific ideal. Anchoring and the halo/horn effect are quite similar: they let a specific trait, skill, or experience of the candidate define your decision.
Intuition (gut feeling)
We hear all the time that we should trust our instincts. In the context of hiring, however, gut feeling is actually simply an expression of unconscious bias, and shouldn’t be the reason that motivates your hiring choices.
What can you do to eliminate interviewer bias?
There are a few things you can do to help eliminate bias from your hiring process. The specific methods will depend on your current interviewing and selection process—and on your willingness to adjust and change it if needed.
A heightened sense of self-awareness goes a long way in keeping your biases in check. Question your decisions and take detailed notes to make your decision-making process more transparent and clear.
Keep in mind that there are many different types of biases you can fall prey to, and although you might be conscious of some of them, this usually isn’t sufficient to eliminate them. A more structured approach is necessary, in combination with being aware of your own biases.
Write a clear and well-defined description of the position & the skills you’re looking for
Define the position and the necessary skills and be as precise as possible. If you’re vague—both internally, when discussing the job opening, and externally, in your job ad—this leaves plenty of space for unconscious bias to skew the interviewing process. Being clear and specific projects a positive company image to prospective candidates, too, which is essential if you want to attract the best talent.
Be realistic in your requirements, though—do not write the job ad with an ideal person in mind, for example, the person who is leaving the company, and whose position you’re looking to fill. This way, you might be anchoring your expectations to their performance and background, and not allow for neutrality in your hiring process.
It’s equally important to leave out stereotypically gendered words or requirements in your job ad, in order to attract both men and women.
Anonymize resumes and create a few different categories
Anonymizing resumes can help you eliminate bias related to the name, gender, age, and location of candidates. This is particularly helpful if a part of your hiring process is automated.
Alternatively, you can create a few different categories from which to select candidates. Research shows that grouping resumes together (e.g., by candidates’ university) increases selection diversity, without lowering its quality. This happens because hiring managers tend to pick candidates from each category, and still select the strongest ones.
Automate a part of the hiring process and test candidates’ skills
Another way to minimize interviewer bias is to automate a part of the recruitment process. This can be done by administering pre-selection skills tests, which helps recruiters choose candidates based on their skills & knowledge.
Skill tests are very flexible and can be used for many different skills: language proficiency, technical, and cognitive skills alike. For example, you can test for critical thinking, attention to detail, or also for SEO copywriting, complex queries in SQL, or intermediate French. You can even test for culture fit.
You could administer a few tests for a given position, and easily compare results afterward. This allows you to select candidates based on merit, and minimize unconscious bias. You can also anonymize test results, too, to be even more neutral when interpreting the results.
NB: If you’re asking candidates to take a few tests, make sure you’re not overwhelming them with a lengthy and overly complicated selection process.
Screen candidates on the phone
Screening calls can help you eliminate some of your biases. During a call, you don’t get all the non-verbal cues you have in a live or video interview. As you don’t get to see the person, you don’t risk to be influenced by their physical appearance, style, or clothing choices. Structure your interviews and take notes to make the most out of each call.
Phone screening interviews are usually short, but unforeseen interruptions can still happen. Don’t make biased conclusions on the candidate’s preparedness based on that.
Do structured interviews
Structured interviews can be particularly helpful if you want to have a neutral, non-biased hiring process. When doing structured interviews, the recruiting manager systematically asks all candidates the same questions, in the same or similar order. This leaves little place for small talk or subjectivity and allows them to compare applicants based on objective criteria.
In fact, small talk is highly irrelevant to the candidate’s skills and might cloud your judgment, for example, because of common interests (or the lack of such). Structured interviews standardize the hiring process, and give an equal opportunity to each candidate to demonstrate their skills and knowledge.
Structured interviews are good predictors even for positions where the nature of the work itself is unstructured. That’s also why Google uses them, in combination with behavioral and cognitive assessments, among others.
Document the hiring process
For each interview and phone call take detailed notes. Do not rely on your memory, which is far from perfect, especially if you need to do a lot of interviews in a short period of time. Instead, take structured notes, so that you can easily compare them afterward. You can also use scorecards to note applicants’ performance and systematize your observations.
Each decision that you make during the hiring process also needs to be documented and added to the candidate’s file. Performance predictions can help you improve your interviewing process over time, as you compare them with your chosen candidates’ actual performance.
Does eliminating interviewer bias lead to a better hiring process?
Even if the interview is a cornerstone of your hiring process, there are a lot of different strategies that you can use to eliminate bias as much as possible. Streamlining, automating, and standardizing your interviewing process are all crucial elements for that.
Reducing interviewer bias to a minimum is important for making sure you’re hiring the best talent. In addition to that, it helps you provide equal opportunities to your candidates and hire diverse talent from all paths of life.