Hiring and bias: let's have less denial and more damage limitation

Posted 19 November 2013 by
Gaby Walker, Support R&D Consultant, OPP; and Rob Bailey, Managing Consultant, R&D, OPP
Mirror image interviewing

Have you ever thought someone was much younger or older than they actually are? Have you ever made assumptions about someone’s intelligence because of their accent? Have you ever labelled someone based on the way they dress?

If you answered ‘no’ to any of these questions, then you’re probably not being honest with yourself. The fact is, we are all biased, to a lesser or greater degree. And if people in general are biased, the hiring process will be biased too.

Recruitment is a ripe breeding ground for assumptions and snap-decisions. Firstly, selection is usually based on limited information. CVs and applications only provide a snapshot of a candidate’s personality and skills, so bias is whispering in our ears even before the first encounter.

Secondly, hiring is often time-pressured, requiring relatively quick decisions. Under such circumstances bias can exert a strong influence, filling in the gaps in the recruiter’s knowledge.

Furthermore, unstructured and intuition-based interviewing techniques present opportunities for subjectivity and personal preferences. Following our ‘gut feelings’ may feel right, but it often fools us into favouring people like ourselves (known as ‘in-group bias’), or being drawn irresistibly towards charismatic people (the ‘halo effect’). It can also cause us to reject someone for characteristics they do not actually possess (ie prejudice). Our previous blog post Bias? By us? Opening our eyes to prejudice in recruitment has already considered these, and other, types of bias.

So, accepting the fact that we are all biased, how can we ensure that we make correct and effective hiring decisions?

The solution is to take a structured approach to hiring, documenting the decision-making process clearly. This helps companies select the best person for the job, based on relevant skills and personal attributes rather than gender, ethnicity or other irrelevant characteristics. Three invaluable tools in this process are job analysis, structured interviews and personality assessments.

Job analysis provides structure, helping to define clear expectations of what we are looking for in a candidate by identifying key competencies and performance criteria important for success in the job. This develops a valid person specification, identifying the key skills and characteristics that will define the future job holder. Job analysis diminishes biases by clearly specifying what we want to assess in the CV, application and interview. These elements become objective criteria against which candidates can be measured. This should be done before the recruitment starts, ensuring that we adhere to objective selection criteria in spite of any bias that might tempt us to gather less relevant information. Job profiling software such as OPP’s new Sirius tool (launching soon – contact us for more information) can cover all the bases here.

Structured interviews provide guidance for the interviewer and employ a consistent scoring system for all candidates. This reduces the chances of bias, as the interviewer’s focus is on the quality of objective content rather than making intuitive evaluations.

Personality assessments can measure the traits and human attributes required by a successful applicant objectively and empirically. Well-constructed personality questionnaires such as the 16PF® consistently measure candidates’ underlying personality traits, accurately predicting behaviour and future performance.

Again, just to make sure no one gets off the hook – we are all biased. Our knees jerk when we first meet someone. We were born that way, and the fact that you are an HR manager does not make you immune. But help is at hand, and job analysis, structured interviewing and objective decision aids can spell out which human attributes we want to measure. These structures encourage us to focus on competencies and underlying traits rather than engaging in a fruitless dance with those misleading cues that can trigger bias.

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