How to Reduce Interviewer Bias

candidate in job interview

In my 45+ years as a recruiter, one of the many things I’ve learned is that strangers get a bad deal when it comes to being accurately assessed during interviews. While people who are known to the hiring manager are assessed on their past performance, strangers are judged on their motivation to get the job, a bunch of generic competencies, the depth of their technical knowledge and the quality of their presentation skills. Worse, all of these factors are viewed through a biased lens filled with misconceptions and flawed logic.

For example, if a candidate who’s a stranger makes a positive first impression, the interviewer looks for facts to justify the candidate as strong. And if another candidate who’s also a stranger makes a negative first impression for whatever reason, the interviewer looks for facts to justify excluding the candidate. Not surprisingly, it’s simple to find facts to justify either situation. On top of that, it’s easy for an interviewer to fall victim to affinity bias – meaning they are more likely to favor a candidate who is similar to them.

Because of this, it’s imperative to prevent biases from creeping into the interview as much as possible in order to make fair (and good) hiring decisions. Below, I’ve listed what I’ve found to be the best techniques to reduce interviewer bias:

  1. Define the job, not the person. A real job description is a list of things people need to do, not a list of things they need to have. If it can be proven during the interview that a candidate has successfully handled similar work, it’s clear the person has all of the skills and experiences necessary. Typically, this will be different from what’s listed on the job description. By defining work as performance objectives, you open the talent pool to more diverse talent in addition to reducing bias by assessing the person’s past performance doing comparable work, not their presentation skills and first impression.
  2. Conduct a phone screen first. The less personal nature of a phone screen naturally reduces bias by eliminating visual clues and focusing on general fit and the person’s track record of growth and performance. By establishing this initial connection with the candidate based on his or her past performance, the candidate’s onsite first impression – strong or weak – is less impactful.
  3. Use panel interviews. As long as the interview is semi-scripted and the interviewers on the panel are assigned roles, it’s difficult for bias to overwhelm the process.
  4. Script the interview. Football coaches script the first 20 plays of every game. By using pre-scripted questions – and giving them to the candidate ahead of time – you reduce the chance of going off-script due to the interviewer’s emotional reaction to the candidate.
  5. Don’t make snap judgements. At the beginning of the interview, force yourself to wait at least 30 minutes before making any yes or no decision. During this time ask every candidate the same questions whether your initial reaction is positive or negative.
  6. Be a juror – not a judge. The judge’s instructions to the jurors are always the same: Hear all the evidence before reaching a conclusion. Every interviewer should take the same advice.
  7. Use reverse logic. People tend to relax when they meet a candidate they instantly like and get uptight when this instant reaction is negative. Make a note about this every time you meet a candidate. A pattern will soon emerge. Controlling your biases starts by recognizing you have them.  Most people seek out positive confirming facts for people they like and negative facts for people they don’t like. You can neutralize your biases by doing the opposite.
  8. Treat candidates as consultants. We initially give someone who is a subject matter expert or a highly regarded consultant the benefit of the doubt. If you give every candidate the same courtesy – whether you instantly like them or not – the truth will be evident by the end of the interview.
  9. Use a talent scorecard to share evidence. It’s essential to eliminate yes/no gladiator voting where the person with the biggest thumb wins. Instead require interviewers to provide evidence of competency and motivation to do the work defined using a formal scorecard in which all of the interviewers share their evidence.
  10. Measure first impressions at the end. If first impressions are important for job success, assess them at the end of the interview when you’re not seduced by them. Then objectively determine if the person’s first impression will help or hinder on-the-job success.

While each of these tips will help minimise the impact of bias when interviewing, it’s even better when all of the steps are embedded throughout your company’s hiring processes. This will ensure you’re not only seeing the strongest and most diverse talent possible, but also ensuring each person is objectively assessed. And that’s important whether the person is a stranger or an acquaintance.

Permission has been granted from The Adler Group and Lou Adler, author of Hire With Your Head and The Essential Guide to Hiring & Getting Hired, to reprint this article.

About the author
Lou Adler is the CEO and founder of The Adler Group – a training and search firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring℠. Adler is the author of the Amazon top-10 best-seller, Hire With Your Head (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd Edition, 2007). His most recent book has just been published, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013). He is also the author of the award-winning Nightingale-Conant audio program, Talent Rules! Using Performance-based Hiring to Build Great Teams (2007). Adler holds an MBA from the University of California in Los Angeles and a BS in Mechanical Engineering from Clarkson University in New York.