Diversity Hiring Talent Strategy

Eliminating Interviewer Bias Starts with a Simple Mind Game

Bias is insidious. Politics is the best example of bias at its worst. But it may be just as bad when it comes to hiring. It causes us to hire people we shouldn’t have and not hire those we should.

Bias is insidious. Politics is the best example of bias at its worst. But it may be just as bad when it comes to hiring. It causes us to hire people we shouldn’t have and not hire those we should.

The problem starts as soon as we meet a candidate. If the person’s first impression is positive, we tend to assume competency and look for positive facts to confirm our instant reaction. When we don’t like someone, we look for negative facts. Eliminating bias starts by doing the exact opposite of what we normally do. In this case, it’s assuming those we don’t like are actually fully competent and those we do like aren’t.

While this mental reprogramming trick temporarily forces objectivity, determining actual competency comes next.

Long ago I learned how to overcome interviewing bias by accident when asked to interview someone the company was considering for a short-term consulting assignment. The person came highly referred but I was instantly put off by his appearance, age and accent. Regardless, since we weren’t going to be best friends or even work together too long, 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 the project area he was being considered to handle. It took 20 minutes to go through his work history and 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 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 a bunch of clarifying questions like these:

  • How did you get assigned the project?
  • What were the big challenges and what were the deliverables and measures of success?
  • How did you figure out the problem and develop the plan?
  • Describe the actual project plan, how the plan was managed and if it was met.
  • Describe all of the people on the team, the role they played and how you selected, trained and developed them.
  • What was the biggest decision you made and how did you make it?
  • What was the biggest problem you faced and how did you resolve it?
  • What kind of recognition did you receive for completing this project?

This took another 20 minutes to fully understand the project and his role. By the time we were done it was abundantly clear he was extremely competent. However, to understand his problem-solving and critical thinking skills, I described my client’s project in broad terms and asked how he’d figure out the best solution for implementing 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. When we were done it was clear he understood the issues including knowing what he didn’t know and how he’d close these gaps.

Now here was a big surprise. By the end of the hourlong 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. As important, I was looking forward to working with him on the project.

It’s now 30 years later and I’m still using this basic approach to reduce bias and increase assessment accuracy. It starts by forcing objectivity and then using a structured assessment process emphasizing past performance doing comparable work.

How to Use Past Performance to Accurately Predict Future Job Success

  1. Define the performance objectives of the job before you start interviewing candidates otherwise you’ll substitute your own biased frame of reference to decide competency and fit.
  2. Conduct a semi-scripted interview consisting of a work history review, digging deeply into the person’s major job-related accomplishments and conducting a give-and-take problem-solving session around the most important performance objective.
  3. Conduct an exploratory phone screen before meeting any candidate onsite using a shortened version of the above. This saves time and naturally reduces first impression bias when first meeting.
  4. Bias will be revealed by having everyone share their evidence in a live debriefing session using this type of talent scorecard to guide the conversation and make the assessment.

While I suspect you’ll be equally dumbfounded using this process, more important, you’ll stop making hiring mistakes due to bias and start hiring people based on their ability.