The first step to overcoming biases is recognizing that they exist and that no one — no matter how educated and open-minded they are — is free of them.
Biases can influence our decisions in numerous ways. If undetected, they can lead to suboptimal hires and, perhaps worse, unequal opportunities.
Today, we read a lot about fighting discrimination during hiring. In certain countries, such as the UK, anonymized CVs have become a common practice: a resume must not contain any personal information such as name, gender, nationality, photograph, or birth date.
We believe that this makes sense.
In our line of business (software engineering), discriminating against people because of such minor things as their skin tone, religion, or whether they may occasionally wear high heels would be as smart as complaining about a lack of ice cubes when handed a bottle of water in the middle of the desert. Good candidates are hard to find!
Nevertheless, we are not immune to cognitive biases and may experience them during an interview.
Here’s a list of some common ones you may encounter in this type of situation and how to detect and, ideally, overcome them.
How to avoid negative biases while interviewing
Let’s say you had a negative experience with a coworker who graduated from a specific university. The candidate went to the same university and you unconsciously look for confirmation that they are less skilled and not a fit for the role.
One negative impression, in the beginning, can blur your decision unfairly (perhaps they were a couple of minutes late to your video chat). The name comes as an opposite to the halo effect (below).
This bias is demonstrated when we have negative attitudes towards people who are different from us or let stereotypes affect our decision-making in an unconscious way. This can be influenced by our personal relationships, social settings, past experiences, or the mass media.
Prejudice against other cultures is probably one of the most common examples. We may think that a candidate who speaks with a foreign accent is less qualified or an older person will not be up-to-date in technology.
Positive cognitive biases are problematic too
Similarity attraction bias
When a candidate has a lot in common with you, e.g. they play the same sport or come from the same university, you will immediately feel a connection with them. This may lead to a less critical judgment. You may spend more time speaking about the best skiing resorts in Europe then actually questioning their technical knowledge.
This bias can have the positive effect that you hire people who get along well since they have a lot in common. However, it does not foster a diverse way of thinking within the organization.
This one can be seen as the opposite of confirmation bias.
Some people’s resumes are almost too good to be true. You are so impressed by their shiny diplomas and Hackathon awards that you ignore actual red flags during the interview and instead actively search for confirmation of their good resume.
Let’s say you are very happy with a coworker who recommends one of her friends. This may influence your judgment of the person’s skills. Shortcomings will be forgiven too easily.
An example of the halo effect is when you find out someone you have formed a positive image of has cheated on their taxes. Because of the positive image, you may dismiss the significance of this behavior and perhaps even think that the person simply made a mistake.
This one can be seen as the opposite of the implicit bias: We often stick to who we are and what we know and hence we tend to sympathize and identify with people who come from the same background in terms of gender identification, age, education, sexual orientation, disability, ethnicity, or socioeconomical status.
If your company only consists of 26-year old, non-religious white dudes that drink craft beers, you may want to ask your hiring team a couple of questions.
We tend to give more positive attributes to attractive people. In certain areas this may make sense: Sales people who represent a company should be well groomed. However, in many other areas, a great skill set is probably more important than a well-cut suit.
Other cognitive biases that affect hiring
Let’s say a candidate reminds you of someone you know. You may easily associate the characteristics of this person with them, although they may be a completely different person.
Just because someone looks like Lenny Kravitz, they may not necessarily know how to play the guitar. The person whose voice sounds like one of your least favorite politicians will most likely have a completely different character.
This one occurs when we are overly confident in making the right decision. It can go in different directions and aggravate other biases. Thinking that the way we interview and evaluate candidates is the right way, we ignore our own deficiencies in the decision-making process.
Just like the overconfidence bias, this one often occurs when we have been doing the job for a long time. Instead of basing our decision on actual facts and data, we rely only on our gut instinct. Often relying on knowledge that has been (unconsciously) accumulated over years, we are more influenced by bias than fact-based decision making.
In this scenario, one person’s opinion is overruled by a group of people searching to find a consensus. If, for example, a group wants to hire someone despite the objections of the initial interviewer, peer pressure could overrule reasonable doubt.
Whereas joint decision-making is usually more effective, there may be the opposite problem if the manager has a strong opinion that the rest of the team feels they must align with. This is the classic “Yes-man” scenario.
Comparing candidates against each other (and not to the job ad) may either lead to being overly critical or — especially when talent is scarce — a sacrifice in quality. Settling for whomever is available rather than holding out for the right person might not be the best decision for your organization.
How can I eliminate bias when hiring?
The bad news is that biases can not be completely eliminated. The good news is that once you are aware of their existence, you can try to counterbalance their effect.
- Ask yourself if your opinion is objective and sufficiently data-based. To do so, it helps to always ask the same questions to all candidates and work with score cards and rubrics.
- Ask yourself if the element that caused a negative impression will keep them from doing their job. A lady with dirty glasses may still write clean code!
- Ask yourself if an element that bothered you is something that you are particularly sensitive to but may not bother others. You may not like their ABBA shirt because you have a different taste in music. Whenever you can tell yourself “It’s not you, it’s me!”, you have identified your bias.
- If your impression is positive, simply ask yourself why you think they would perform well in this particular job.
- If you start to compare candidates against each other, review the job description to stay focused on the actual requirements.
Situational or behavior-based questions are a good way of gaining insight into the candidate’s human skills. These interview questions often start with “Tell me about a time…” , “Give me an example of…” , or “What would you do if…?”
Wearing too many HATS
HATS stands for hungry, angry, tired, or scared. If you are experiencing even one of these four conditions, your biases can be overcharged. Our emotions have taken control of our decisions.
You’ll be more likely to choose the right candidate based on merit and competencies rather than feelings if you are well rested, fed, and calm.
How do I weed out biases in the hiring process?
Source from diversified talent pools
Find new recruiting channels. Have managers from a variety of backgrounds review your job descriptions for language that may be biased towards gender or ethnicity, which can reduce the likelihood of diverse candidates applying for your jobs.
For example, words like ‘native’, ‘ninja’, ‘guru’, or ‘competitive’ tend to be biased towards men whereas ‘supportive’ or ‘patient’ tend to be biased towards women.
With two interviewers comparing their thoughts and feedback, you will add an extra layer of security to confirm why they may or may not have doubts about hiring a candidate. Pairing during interviews can be beneficial in each stage of the process.
Alternatively, you can record interviews and ask for a second opinion. In this case, make sure you ask the candidate’s permission beforehand.
If the interview takes place on the same day, at the same time, for all the hiring managers, several people need to come to a joint decision and candidates can complete the interview process in one day. In a tight market, you will also gain an advantage if you can decide and hire faster!
Panel interviews may make sense when you have a fairly low number of interviews to conduct. In the last stage of the hiring process, they can be especially beneficial — or when receiving pre-selected candidates from a trusted partner such as madewithlove. Read more about our recruitment services.
Remove all demographic information from a resume. This includes names, gender, photos, age, education, and perhaps even years of education and experience to avoid age-ism.
This method is proven to work: In the 1970s and 1980s, orchestras began using blind auditions. Candidates are situated on a stage behind a screen to play for a jury that cannot see them. Researchers have determined that this step alone makes it 50% more likely that a woman will advance to the final selection round.
Our recruiting process
At madewithlove, our hiring process begins with a profiling meeting during which we try to get as much background information as possible about our clients and the profiles they want to hire for.
Based on this briefing we write the job description, carefully choosing the most suitable tone to attract candidates from diverse backgrounds. If necessary, we directly reach out to candidates we know, from a variety of talent pools. These sources have proven to bring in more diverse candidates.
If according to their resume, the candidate seems to meet the technical requirements, we invite them to a video call. If they show the right motivation and mindset during this interview, they will receive an invitation to a technical assignment. For example, a full-stack developer is asked to create a solution to an e-commerce-related problem.
Click here to read more about how to master your next interview
The assignment will then be anonymized and reviewed by two of our developers. To avoid groupthink, each one of them must independently judge the quality of the code and the elegance of the solution without consulting their colleague.
Anonymizing technical assignments is just as crucial for avoiding biases as blind auditions.
Madewithlove has thus created a small tool that allows us to hide the name and GitHub profile of the candidate when reviewing their technical assignment.
Click here to read about what we expect from our candidates.
To make our process even more bias-free, we are currently exploring the possibility of implementing a CV-free application process during which candidates only enter their skills and experience and play a set of neuro-scientific games that allow us to get to know their work preferences and problem-solving skills.
Overcoming cognitive biases
There is no perfect solution to get rid of all bias, but we can at least eliminate our most personal ones: The more diverse the decision making team, the more balanced the (hiring) decision will be. Please feel free to contact us if you have any questions or would like to discuss this subject further.