Diversity in the workplace drives innovation, produces better leaders, and avoids groupthink. But recruiting diverse hires can be more challenging than it seems, and unconscious bias or implicit bias is one reason why.
Everyone carries implicit biases. It’s part of being human. But in a hiring context, your partiality impacts the way you perceive an applicant’s abilities or cultural fit, especially during the interview process. Those prejudgements make it difficult to identify and hire the best candidates.
Understanding and managing interview bias will help reduce its impact on hiring decisions, allowing you to bring the best and brightest recruits on board and create a more diverse team.
What is interview bias?
Interview bias happens when a recruiter judges a candidate’s ability based on stereotypes or non-work-related ideas about a person. It interferes with a fair, merit-based assessment of a candidate’s suitability, often leading to poor hiring decisions.
As an interviewer, your unconscious response to trivial characteristics, like a person’s body language or hobbies, can unfairly affect their chance of landing the job. You could end up rejecting one candidate who would have done well or recruiting another for the wrong reasons.
This phenomenon is more common than it might seem. When discussing hires that didn’t perform as expected, 42% of recruitment specialists credited bias for getting in the way of choosing the right candidate. In fact, 32% of hiring mistakes happened because those responsible “took a chance on a nice person.”
And allowing your prejudices to bias the hiring process is expensive. A bad hiring decision can cost companies upwards of 30% of the employee’s first-year earnings, and it can also harm employee morale and team productivity.
Making the right hiring decisions requires educating yourself on different types of bias. Once you can recognize them, you’ll be able to take practical steps to counter your prejudgements and see candidates for who they are.
Types of interview bias
While you can never eliminate unconscious bias entirely, being aware of it can help mitigate its effects. Here are a few common types of biases and how they could affect the interview process:
Judging a candidate based on group characteristics instead of their individual qualities is stereotype bias. Usually, these conclusions are rooted in prejudice of one form or another. This can lead to gender inequality and other kinds of inequality in the workplace. Types of stereotype bias include:
EXAMPLE: You reject a candidate for a programming job because their socioeconomic background makes you question their intelligence, even though they have years of experience.
These biases form when a single characteristic or physical trait overshadows an applicant’s other qualities. When that trait is positive and you hire them for that reason, this bias becomes the halo effect. If it’s negative and you reject them, it becomes the horn effect.
EXAMPLE: You hire a candidate because they were easy to talk to, but their hard skills are lacking and they don’t end up being a high performer.
With recency bias, you might favor more recent candidates than past ones. Chances are you better remember people you interviewed more recently, so their positive traits are fresher in your brain. Information about candidates you interviewed a few days or weeks ago might be murkier, making you less likely to hire them.
EXAMPLE: During the interview, a candidate starts confidently but doesn’t give a good answer to your last question. The final error sticks with you, and you choose a different candidate even though they aren’t as strong overall.
First impression bias
It takes one-tenth of a second to create a judgment based on someone’s appearance. Forming an opinion based on your first impression can remain throughout the interview process, even if that impression has nothing to do with their merit.
EXAMPLE: You unconsciously favor a mediocre candidate who attended the interview in a blazer instead of the more competent applicant who wore a t-shirt.
Rejecting applicants based on physical mannerisms instead of skills is called non-verbal bias. An introverted candidate who doesn’t make eye contact could still be a strong hire, but you might feel like you didn’t connect with them because of their mannerisms.
Different types of neurodiversity, like Tourette syndrome and autism spectrum disorders (ASD), can also affect a person’s body language and lead you not to hire them despite their strengths.
EXAMPLE: The candidate you’re interviewing twists their hair around their finger when answering a difficult question. You disqualify the applicant because you judge them as uninterested in the position.
Whether unconscious or not, people tend to favor others with similar interests as them. This tendency is known as similarity or affinity bias, meaning if you have something in common with a candidate, you’ll likely connect with and favor them over other applicants.
EXAMPLE: After asking them to tell you about themselves, the candidate discloses that they completed the same internship as you. You bond over the experience, leading you to view their application more favorably than others.
When using a scale measurement, humans tend to rate things closer to the middle, even if that rating isn’t accurate. This is known as central tendency and, in a hiring situation, it can remove nuance and render one applicant indistinguishable from another. This can make it harder to decide who to hire and discount an applicant’s individual strengths and weaknesses.
EXAMPLE: You’re rating a series of candidates based on their work experience. No one seems to stand out, so you mark them all as average.
Inconsistency in questioning
Instead of following a list of standardized questions during the interview, you might adjust your process after meeting a candidate. You could unnecessarily ask them about a gap in their resume or choose not to question their work experience based on their personality. This prevents you from having a holistic view of each interviewee.
EXAMPLE: The candidate you’re interviewing is a recent graduate of an Ivy League college. You don’t ask about their understanding of a significant business fundamental because you assume they know, but after hiring them you learn they aren’t as competent as you thought.
Confirmation bias operates hand-in-hand with the other biases on this list. When you judge an interviewee based on your preconceptions, it can lead you to ask questions or pay attention to information that validates the things you already think.
EXAMPLE: During an interview, you ask your top candidate questions highlighting their strengths while ignoring any red flags and weaknesses.
How to avoid bias in interviews
Removing all common biases from the interview process isn’t realistic, but putting in the effort does help. Try implementing one or more of these suggestions to help preserve your objectivity and lead you to the best possible candidates.
1. Provide interviewers with diversity and recruitment training
Create a balanced recruitment process by formally training everyone involved. Bring in a diversity and inclusion coach to talk to your team and explore ways to better your hiring process. These conversations should help you recognize prejudice, maintain an objective view, and write interview questions that prevent bias.
2. Use standardized questions and scoring criteria for all candidates
Applying a standardized set of questions and rubric for every candidate interview helps create a consistent experience. Standardized scoring highlights the information you’ve gathered based on the job criteria, not biases, and it weighs everyone as equally as possible.
3. Rely on an interview guide
Using a formal interview guide builds structure in the interview process. A standard document can organize a list of skill-based and behavioral questions so you don’t go off-track. You can keep it in a shared space to let the whole team take notes and document the process.
4. Keep some candidate data anonymous
Research has shown that something as small as a name can affect the hiring process. One study found that applicants with Chinese and Indian names were 20–40% less likely to receive callbacks than those from other backgrounds.
Blind hiring practices let you evaluate candidates without referencing factors that could lead to the formation of a bias, like:
Date of birth
5. Recruit broadly
If your company’s headquarters are in a big city, you might miss out on talented applicants who prefer rural living or can’t afford to relocate. If you offer hybrid or remote work opportunities, look beyond your immediate geographic area and expand your candidate sourcing practices. Recruit based on merit, not convenience.
6. Include different interviewers in the process
Establish a collaborative hiring process by including diverse staff members in screening, interviewing, and decision-making. Different perspectives on your hiring panel will help reduce the effect of individual bias and create a more level playing field.
Are interviews always the best option?
Job interviews help you assess a candidate’s personality and learn more about their background and experience. But sometimes, an interview isn’t the best predictor of whether someone is the right person for the job. Here are a few reasons why you should include other evaluation factors in your hiring process:
Speed: Phone screenings, interviews, and in-person assessments require a significant time investment, both from the hiring team and the interviewee. As a consequence, you might avoid spending too much time on unworthy candidates, eliminating them before they have the chance to prove themselves.
Relevant information: If you’re hiring for a technical position, it might be a better choice to prioritize skills assessments, working interviews, and experience over a person’s interview answers.
Interview anxiety: Some candidates may feel nervous during interviews, even if they’re qualified for the job. Their unease could affect your ability to assess their skills and potential as an employee.
Limit, not eliminate
It’s impossible to completely remove bias from the hiring process — unconscious or otherwise. But you can still limit the effects of interview bias by recognizing potential prejudice, diversifying the hiring panel, and creating a standardized process for every candidate.
That way, you can establish a fair and equitable assessment and create a diverse team that positions you for long-term success.