Living and working in our time and age means that we are constantly exposed to various streams of information and expected to quickly adjust and respond to it. Being faced with such a challenging task, our cognitive system is often pressured to make shortcuts, without even consulting us. For example, you’ve probably had a colleague that just seemed a bit off at the first glance and you could never grow to like them, although you never knew exactly why. Or maybe, you’ve interviewed a candidate and pretty early on realized no further conversation is necessary – the candidate is so much like you and your colleagues and would fit in the team perfectly. Or perhaps, you were being interviewed and the interviewer seemed incompetent right away, although when you now stop and think about it, they actually did their job fairly.
Surely, there are many examples, both in our personal and professional lives, when we made quick decisions and were certain in our judgment although we couldn’t properly explain where this certainty comes from. These situations occur due to a well-studied phenomenon – cognitive biases.
A cognitive bias is a systematic error in thinking, which occurs while we’re interpreting information and can lead us to faulty judgment. It is normal, and sometimes quite economic, to experience cognitive biases since they speed up our decision-making process and save our energy. However, there is one area where biased thinking can have severe consequences: the selection process.
In this blog, we’ll try to summarize the most common biases that can occur in the selection process, both from the interviewer’s and from the candidate’s perspective, and try to give you some tips on how to avoid them. Even if you are not a hiring professional or considering entering a selection process soon, this list can still help you identify some of the biases you may hold since they may appear in any aspect o your life.
Let’s review the interviewer’s biases first:
Perhaps the most famous cognitive bias, often mentioned in various contexts, the Halo effect occurs when the first impression influences the rest of the communication. For example, if the candidate answers some of the first questions particularly well, in a way that the interviewer finds fitting, the interviewer is likely to overlook some ’’red flags’’ later on, or to interpret them in the light of the first, positive impression.
Similarly, if the first impression is negative, the interviewer may become nit-picky and interpret the rest of the conversation in this light. The interviewer may even go as far as to interpret genuine aspects of a candidate, which he would typically appreciate, as a dishonest attempt to appear as a desirable employee. First impressions are often very difficult to disprove!
2. Affinity bias
Everyone (including Hiring professionals, no matter how experienced they are) tends to gravitate toward people with similar backgrounds, interests, values, and outlooks on life. For example, Hiring Manager may have a ‘’gut feeling’’ about a candidate that went to the same University and had a similar career start as they did. To some extent, Affinity bias may be useful in hiring – we are likely to function well with people who are similar to us. However, apart from the obvious moral and discriminatory issue, this bias may lead to several practical consequences. Just because the candidate is similar to the interviewer in some aspects, who may perform very well in the said company, doesn’t mean they’ll as successfully get on with the work. Similarly, the interviewer may overlook candidates that would be more fitting or qualified, ie. pass over the more deserving ones. In addition, creating a uniform team of like-minded individuals can ‘’block’’ the team long term, preventing the influx of new and different ideas. It is in the clash of views that most innovations are made.
Anchoring occurs when an arbitrary benchmark is used as a reference point in future evaluations. For example, if you first see sneakers that cost $ 1,000, the next ones you encounter that cost $ 500 may seem cheap, even though you’d find the second pair too expensive if you didn’t see the more expensive ones first. Buying $ 500 sneakers may even feel like saving, after being struck by the initial price.
Anchoring bias is long studied in the field of behavioral finance since it plays an important role in sales and salary negotiations. If the candidate enters the negotiation with high demands, they may appear more valuable than the candidate with similar qualifications and skill sets with lower demands. On top of that, once the negotiation starts and the demands are a bit adjusted, the negotiator from the company side may feel like they got ’’lucky’’ to obtain such a candidate at such salary range, overlooking the fact that the agreed range is still higher than it was initially planned. Of course, it is sometimes necessary to readjust the range to obtain truly valuable employees, but it is also important to keep the anchoring bias in mind and differentiate between deserving individuals and confident negotiators. Similarly, before the negotiation, there may have been another negotiation process with a candidate that demanded ’’ too much’’, making the current candidate’s expectations (even though they may as well exceed the range) seem more reasonable.
Attentional bias overlaps with Halo effect in the sense that it entails a narrow attentional focus. However, while in Halo effect our attention is focused on the first piece of information we receive from the candidate, in attentional bias, any type of information can become our focus. Certain interviewers exhibit positive attentional bias, focusing only on the pieces of information that they find appealing about the candidate, overlooking all the potential cues on negative aspects. The reverse is also likely, some interviewers focus solely on aspects they find negative about the candidate, ignoring all the cues why such a candidate may be a good fit for the role.
As we’ve previously said, the interviewers are not the only ones falling into traps of these biases. Hence, we’ve also listed two of the most common biases that can influence a candidate’s behavior in selection:
A self-serving bias is a type of bias that enhances a positive perception of one’s personality and actions. When affected by this bias, individuals tend to describe their actions as products of their efforts and abilities, while they describe their failures as products of situational factors. For example, a candidate may describe his team’s success as a product of his efforts, while he describes failures in terms of faulty organizational structure or nonproductive colleagues. Of course, from the interviewer’s perspective, it is hard to evaluate whether the candidate truly was a star in a bad environment or just not properly adapted to work tasks. That’s why it is important to approach each candidate holistically and infer from various sets of information on their behavior.
6. Availability bias
This bias refers to our tendency to base our decisions on the information that most easily comes to mind (often the most recent, or most memorable). For example, people often overestimate the number of terrorist attacks or plane crashes that happen yearly – because of the intensity of such events, they are easily recalled from memory and people feel like there must be many more examples. The likelihoods of a car crash or drowning in your tub are much higher than the likelihood of a plane crash or terrorist attack, yet, people are afraid of planes and terrorists and not of bubble baths and cars. Shocking events are more memorable and therefore easier to recall, but that doesn’t make them more likely to occur in the future again.
The selection process is not free of this bias – a candidate may have a bad previous experience with interviewers ( eg an interviewer that didn’t understand the position fully, was too assertive, rude… ) and may enter the new process with a ’’prophecy’’ that the interviewer will be uninformed or interrogative – because they all must be. Previous negative and memorable experiences with interviewers can truly start a cycle of miscommunication between the current interviewer and the candidate. Just because it is easy to recall an uninformed or interrogative interviewer, doesn’t mean that they all are.
After listing these selection biases, objectivity and effective communication during the interviewing process may seem almost impossible to achieve. However, in reality, there are always things you can do as an HR professional to prevent yourself from falling victim to these biases.
1.Include multiple people in the selection process – but truly
Although most selection processes include several professionals, there are still processes that heavily depend on one professional – others are present solely formally. Make your hiring team members feel comfortable to share their genuine opinions – it shouldn’t be a collective effort just on paper. Although the experience reduces the effect of biases, everyone can still ’slip’ from time to time and form biased opinions. Therefore, it is important to compare the opinions of different team members and to form alternative interpretations of candidates’ behavior.
2.Structure your interview
During the preparation stage, agree with your team on relevant questions that you should ask each candidate. Certain professionals hold fully structured interviews to avoid all biases, while others believe this approach to be too mechanical and prefer having the flexibility to elaborate on topics that emerge spontaneously during the conversation and to chit-chat a bit so they can relax the atmosphere. Whatever your preference is, it is good for interviews to be at least semi-structured. Don’t skip any of the key questions with any of the candidates so the comparison can be as fair and as objective as possible.
3.Acknowledge the biases
To avoid and confront just about anything, you must first acknowledge its existence. It is useful to carefully reflect on your decision-making process or maybe discuss your experience with other hiring professionals. This is particularly important when it seems that you have reached the conclusion quite quickly or when the conclusions seem too extreme – hasty, extreme decisions are often products of biased thinking. In time, you’ll realize which biases you are more prone to, and soon you’ll be able to identify them with much less effort.
Staying objective and making ’’the right’’ decisions when it comes to hiring is an extremely complex task. The interviewer often has to juggle the expectations of numerous stakeholders, sometimes overlooking that the ’’trickiest’’ stakeholder can be our own cognition. We hope that this short list can help you in future processes and that it will pop into your mind the next time you get ’’the gut feeling’’ about the candidate.