Hiring new employees is a key decision at every company. You might consider yourself an ace at it, but you’re still human. That means you’re vulnerable to cognitive biases.
Here are some of the subtle forces that can shape employment decisions:
As soon as you know a candidate’s name, association bias is in the house. One candidate has the same name as your daughter does — how cool! Another has the same name as the kid who annoyed you in middle school. Not so cool. You’d think that neither situation would sway your hiring decision — but they can.
Association bias extends to hometowns, colleges and any other information on a candidate’s resume, whether relevant or not (usually not).
Serial judgment bias
In a sequence of judgments — from wine tastings to musical auditions to, yes, job interviews—the first candidate has a slight advantage. If there are more than about five candidates, the last one also has an edge.
The resumes on the top of the pile might get short shrift, though. A UK study found that recruiters were inconsistent when reviewing the first 10 to 15 resumes because they hadn’t yet established benchmarks for what made a resume great. Also, when a recruiter reviewed a high-quality resume, they judged the subsequent resume more harshly.
The primacy effect
If you’re of a certain age, you may remember shampoo ads with the tagline, “You’ll never have a second chance to make a first impression.” For better or worse, the first impression can muck up critical thinking and objective decisions. Research on job interviews found that a candidate’s first 20 seconds with the interviewer pretty much dictated the interview’s outcome. Not liking a candidate’s handshake or haircut shouldn’t affect career trajectories, but it does.
Some people interview better than others. That doesn’t mean they’d also be better employees.
The halo/horns effect
Learning something positive about a candidate can bias you toward that candidate; likewise, negative information can bias you against them.
Temporal extension effect
When you assume that a candidate’s behavior in an interview is typical of their everyday behavior, you’ve fallen under the spell of the temporal extension effect. Some people interview better than others. That doesn’t mean they’d also be better employees.
So what can recruiters do to combat these biases?
Instead of long, intimidating job descriptions, try casting a wider net
You can’t hire the ideal candidate if she or he never applies for the job, or if you’ve set up filters that cause them to drop out of the process. The language of your job descriptions and other communications is key.
You also need to attract a highly diverse applicant pool, because more diverse companies outperform more homogenous ones, on several measures.
First, take steps to minimize gender bias in your job descriptions:
- Keep pronouns gender neutral.
- Use collaborative words (“responsible”, “shared”) rather than competitive ones (“leading”, “challenge”).
- Specify which skills or abilities are truly required, and skip the rest. Women tend not to apply for a position unless they have 100% of the listed skills, whereas men will apply if they have at least 60%. The more requirements you list, the more candidates you’ll never see.
Second, communication during the process can attract and retain more, and more diverse, applicants. Something as seemingly trivial as word choice in an email could matter more than you realize.
For example: All potential recruits to a UK police force were sent an email with a link to an online test. Passing rates were lower for nonwhite candidates than for white ones. The force wanted to increase the diversity of its officers — but they didn’t change the test questions to meet that goal. Instead, with the help of the Behavioral Insights Team (BIT)—a company working to shape services and policies with human behavior in mind — the email took on a friendlier tone. It also included language that asked candidates, before they took the test, to think for a few minutes about why they wanted to join the force.
The passing gap disappeared.
They didn’t change the test questions. Instead, with the help of the Behavioral Insights Team the email took on a friendlier tone and the gap disappeared.
Instead of resumes and cover letters, try anonymous, relevant data collection
Rather than soliciting resumes and cover letters, ask candidates to answer questions that highlight the skills you’re seeking. You can offer anything from a few online, short-answer questions to the adult version of a take-home exam, in which the applicant must do some high-level research and back up their responses with evidence or explanations.
Platforms like Applied can serve up the questions and collect and score the answers. (That platform also presents the results in formats that minimize cognitive biases.)
By learning relevant information about each candidate before you meet, you’re improving your chances of judging them based on that information, and not on their name or a misspelling on their resume.
The Behavioral Insights Team (BIT), which created Applied, tested the platform for its own hiring. They ran 700 applicants through Applied and also asked them to submit resumes and cover letters, which were reviewed by a separate group. (They presumably also provided a lot of coffee and snacks... 700 resumes and cover letters?)
Compared with the interview pool chosen via resumes and cover letters, the Applied pool was more diverse, with a broader range of skills. BIT then ran the highest-scoring Applied candidates through interviews and assessment days, where they worked with potential colleagues to solve problems, before making offers.
Sixty percent of BIT’s new hires would never have been interviewed through the standard process.
All of these approaches don’t mean you’re suddenly engaging in the much-maligned “computerized hiring.” It’s not computerized hiring, it’s smarter hiring. The final decision is still yours.
These tips and strategies — informed by our biases and strategies to overcome them — are meant to improve the candidate pool and the objectivity of choosing the best person for the job — even if someone with the same name dumped you in eighth grade.