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A Commonsense Idea for Removing Interview Bias

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Bias is insidious. Politics is the best example of bias at its worst. Long ago I learned how to overcome interviewing bias by accident by conducting a non-interview. The story went something like this:

Long before my recruiting days I was asked by our CEO to interview a person he was considering to engage as a consultant for a four-month process reengineering project. Since I was part of the project the CEO believed my assessment would be important. The person came highly referred but I was instantly put off by his appearance, age and accent. Regardless, since we didn’t need to be best friends or work together for the long term, none of this mattered.

To get started I asked the person to give me a quick overview of his background and how he got to be an “expert” in our area of need. It took 20 minutes to go through his work historyand understand some of his major accomplishments and why he got assigned to them. It was quickly apparent he was a quick learner, hard worker and had the right background for handling projects comparable in scope, scale and complexity to the process improvement project we envisioned.

To better understand his project management skills I asked him to give me an example of the biggest process improvement effort he’d ever worked on. Part of this was asking him to clarify the following:

1.    How he got assigned the project.

2.    A description of the big challenges, the major deliverables and measures of success.

3.    How he figured out the problem and developed the plan.

4.    A detailed description of the project plan and the major milestones.

5.    How he managed to the plan and if it was met.

6.    The people on the team and how he selected and trained the people, since he would be training us.

7.    The biggest decision he made and the process he used to make it.

8.    The biggest problem he faced and how he resolved it.

9.    The formal recognition he received, if any, for completing this project.

This took another 20 minutes but by the time we were done it was abundantly clear he was extremely competent. However, I still wasn’t sure of his ability to handle our specific problems so I just described our project needs in broad detail and asked how he’d figure out the best solution and implement it. For this part I was more interested in the approach he would use to develop a solution, not the solution itself. We covered this over the next 20 minutes in a give-and-take discussion including some complex “what…if” questions. By then it was clear he understood our issues including knowing what he didn’t know and how he’d figured out how to find the right answers.

Now here was a big surprise. By the end of the hour interview I was dumbfounded that I barely noticed his accent, his appearance was far better than I first thought and I realized his age had nothing to do with his ability. In fact, we became pretty good friends long before the project was completed.

It’s now 40 years later and I’m still using this basic approach. The big finding: to eliminate bias wait until the end of the interview to determine if you like the person enough to be a full-time employee and if he/she fits within your culture.

Job seekers can force this ability before likability mindset by asking the interviewer to describe real job needs at the beginning of the interview. Then describe a few projects that are most related.

I find it odd that we interview people we know differently than people we don’t know. With acquaintances the focus is on the person’s past performance and potential, but with strangers we focus more on skills, personality and presentation. Using this performance-based interviewing approach I stumbled upon years ago, you’ll discover you can more accurately interview strangers and acquaintances exactly the same way just by assessing ability before assessing likeability.