How to Overcome Interviewer Bias

By Stephanie Hammerwold

As much as we try to make the interview process fair by sticking to work-related questions and avoiding discussion of protected classes, our own biases sometimes sneak into our hiring decisions. Maybe you tend to lean toward single parents because it resonates with your own experience being raised by a single mom, or perhaps you had a bad experience hiring someone with a criminal conviction, so now you automatically throw such candidates in the reject pile. Unfortunately, making such assumptions may mean that you miss out on great candidates, and it could also mean that your hiring process is unfair and possibly discriminatory. It is, therefore, important to understand our own biases and to actively work to adjust the hiring process to overcome such biases.

What is Interviewer Bias?

One of the most common forms of bias comes in the form of stereotyping. Take, for example, a job like firefighter, which is physically demanding. If you assume a candidate is not strong enough to be a firefighter because she is a woman, you are relying on stereotypes rather than assessing if the candidate meets the physical requirements for the job. Stereotyping during the interview process can cause big problems, especially when stereotypes about protected classes result in negative hiring decisions. Such practices are discriminatory and could cause legal trouble for an employer.

We may also be tricked by our first impressions into thinking a candidate is exceptionally good or exceptionally bad. This is called the halo/horns effect. This might show up in a bias toward attractive candidates. The candidate’s charm and good looks may get in the way of an interviewer seeing potential problems. Conversely, a candidate who checked yes to the application question about criminal conviction may automatically be viewed as untrustworthy even if the rest of their application and interview are glowing. Such biases get in the way of making good hiring decisions.

We are often drawn to those similar to us, and this can be another bias pitfall. Maybe your estimation of a candidate improves once you find out they are the same religion as you or they share similar political views. Just as with stereotypes, such criteria may be discriminatory and get in the way of really understanding if someone is qualified for the job.

Recognizing Your Own Biases

Overcoming bias starts with recognizing your own prejudices and biases. Once you acknowledge such things, you can be aware of how they may influence your hiring decisions. When I first started interviewing candidates early in my HR career, I noticed that I could easily be swayed by a hard luck story. While some of these candidates were truly ready to move beyond the problems of their pasts and could end up being star employees, sometimes my bias got in the way of recognizing red flags, and I ended up with a few bad hires. Since my early days in HR, I learned to recognize when my desire to root for the underdog was clouding my judgment.

None of us is completely free of bias and prejudice. The important thing is to understand how these things may influence the employment decisions we make. Doing the work before interviewing candidates will ultimately lead to a process that is fairer and free of potentially discriminatory practices.

Structured Criteria & Selection Process

After understanding your own biases, take some time to create a structured hiring process. Start with a job description that clearly lists the qualifications. This is the foundation for establishing criteria against which you can evaluate all candidates. When you determine a reason for rejecting someone, you should be able to point to specific qualifications on the job description that they do not meet.

Have a set of interview questions that are the same for all candidates. This is a good way to ensure interviews stay on track and do not veer into areas that might allude to protected classes. It also helps to limit interview conversations to areas that are relevant to making a good hiring decision and encourages uniformity in the type of information gathered from each candidate.

Make Selection a Group Effort

It is also useful to have several people involved in the hiring process. Pay attention to what others in the hiring process are using to make their decisions, and address any bias you see in how they evaluate candidates. It can also be useful to run selection criteria by others to ensure that criteria are free of bias and are focused on qualifications, skills and experience relevant to the job.

Working with others in the hiring process can be especially beneficial for those new to interviewing who may not yet be aware of their own biases. It is a good opportunity to openly discuss how certain biases may influence decisions and for veteran interviewers to also check in with themselves in an effort to keep the interview process bias-free.