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Mitigating Bias in Hiring

Bias, unconscious bias, and implicit bias, are all things we hear about often in decision-making and especially when interviewing and selecting talent to work on our teams. There are several types of bias that come into play when interviewing candidates. There’s one that doesn’t come into the conversation nearly as much as it should though.

I’m sure you’ve heard of affinity bias. It’s our bias toward people who are similar to ourselves and those who share similar interests. Perhaps you’ve also heard about confirmation bias, our bias toward seeking information that agrees with or confirms our previously held beliefs. While those two are very strong in relation to hiring, there’s one that I think trumps them all.

In my 16 years of teaching others to conduct effective interviews, I’m always running across folks who feel they have the silver bullet question. It’s usually some nebulous question unrelated to the job or professional life. The interviewer thinks that through the answer to this question, they can demystify an individual and have a deeper understanding of them.

Often these types of questions come in the form of brain teasers. I did a quick google search, and terrifyingly, there are still multiple lists titled like some variety of “2023’s Best Brain Teasers for Interviews”. They’re questions that might not even have correct answers, but interviewers feel that how a candidate answers or interprets the question holds some mysterious truth about the candidate. Incorrect!

The company most famous for asking them has abandoned them as a general practice (even though some sources claim they’re still being asked). In an interview with the New York Times, Laszlo Bok, former SVP of People Ops at Google, said, “…we found that brainteasers are a complete waste of time… They don’t predict anything. They serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart.”

As an aside, this ego-boosting component of interviews exists as well. I know of a male hiring manager who was overheard in an interview with a female candidate saying, “I feel bad for this candidate. I’ve had a rough day. She’ll be crying by the end.” First of all, that person has NO place in a leadership role.

But furthermore, if that’s your attitude going into an interview, why waste your time? Why would someone want to work for an interviewer who makes them cry? For this hiring manager, it was all about power and ego.

These silver bullet questions all play into one particular bias that isn’t discussed enough, overconfidence bias. Psychology Today calls it “the mother of all psychological biases.” A research point that often makes the rounds is that 93% of American drivers believe they’re better than average. That’s not reasonably possible, though. How it shows up in interviews is that we feel we’re a much better judge of character than we are.

These questions take all forms. If you were a tree, what kind of a tree would you be? How many footballs fit in a phone booth? If you could have lunch with anyone (living or dead), who would it be and why? None of those questions have any job relevancy unless you’re interviewing for a job that requires you to stuff a variety of things into phone booths.

One might argue that the question about footballs in a phone booth could be testing for someone’s problem-solving ability. First, how big is the phone booth? Are we talking about American football? Are the footballs inflated or deflated? If someone started asking those questions, you might make a leap that they approach problems with curiosity and don’t make assumptions before solving a problem. But does that mean the candidate who doesn’t ask clarifying questions doesn’t have a curious nature? No. And here’s the key difference, we’re asking a question about footballs and assuming the candidate can imply the nature of the question, that we’re testing their approach to problem-solving. I don’t have to tell you what many say about assumptions.

Let’s find ways to be forthright with the candidate and set them up to succeed. Do you want to work for someone who wants to trick you for their amusement or ego boost? Instead, let’s look at how we can best predict future performance on the job.

In another recent study, researchers found that “Brain teaser interview questions are an example of aggressive interviewer behavior that lacks evidence for validity and is unsettling to job applicants.” They found that those who used them were “…socially inept, narcissistic, sadistic, and callous… and were much more likely to believe they could rely on their intuition to select the best candidate.” This sounds like overconfidence bias to me.

While technology has emerged to help remove bias in evaluating talent, I don’t know of organizations that have eliminated some form of a conversational interview. The best way to evaluate talent is by observation of performance. Much of the newer technology that has emerged is helping to assess technical skills, tools such as Codility or CodeSignal. These are great tools because they assess someone’s ability to do the technical aspects of the role.

However, in my experience, it’s not a technical ability that holds someone back in their career or causes problems in the workplace. It’s typically things that I call professional skills. Things like mindset, adaptability, interpersonal communication, and ability to collaborate; the things that are hard to give a test or assessment for. These skills and abilities are often the hardest to teach and are critical to successful teamwork. I’m sure you’ve experienced working with someone who could blow you away with their knowledge in a particular domain, but when it comes to collaborating with them, it goes downhill quickly.

A structured behavioral interview is one of the best tools we have to combat overconfidence bias. Abundant research indicates the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior in a similar situation. Many studies show that structured behavioral interviewing predicts future performance by 50-70%. But this goes beyond asking questions like “Tell me about a time when….”. You must know how to probe and uncover details about their behavior effectively. Many pair the STAR (Situation, Task, Action(s), Result(s)) with behavioral questions to ensure they’re getting the whole picture. And then, you need to have a structured way to assess the candidates, ideally through a rubric, to put all of the candidates on a level playing field.

I’m excited for Performance Accelerated Learning’s announcement this month of the Bias Interrupted Hiring workshop! It pulls together all my years of interviewing experience, teaching others effective interviewing, and understanding how to mitigate bias and create equitable workplaces. Stay tuned as we make more announcements related to this product!


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