This post originally appeared in issue 182 of The HRDirector. Mike Hogan, Head of People at an employee engagement consultancy, remembers a distinct hiring experience he had at a previous company. “We were looking for someone to manage some key client accounts. Interpersonal skills were obviously high on our list, though unfortunately a candidate that looked great on paper didn’t necessarily exemplify what we were looking for in both interview rounds. Nevertheless, we took a chance on them and it turned out to have been a good move. Their client-facing persona shone and they quickly built the kind of client relationships the role required. It turns out that they were simply nervous in the interview scenario.” Everyone has a story like Mike’s, where all signs indicated that someone was not going to be successful in a role...only to have them perform brilliantly. Or perhaps you have encountered the opposite scenario: someone dazzled in the interview and then crashed and burned spectacularly. Why does this happen?
For years, decision scientists have studied how leaders in organisations make the choices they do. At its core, decision science is simply a form of advanced problem solving and helps us spot the judgments behind the decisions that drive behaviour. If you surveyed managers on how they make hiring decisions, they would describe methods such as reviewing the highlights of a CV, listening to their team’s feedback, and assessing role and culture fit. However, the following is more likely: “I went with my gut.” While the intuitive judgment of some professionals can be impressively skilled, the judgments of others can be quite flawed. Intuition can be brilliant when based on learning from years of experience and receiving reliable feedback, but the truth is that is not always the case. Our hiring intuition goes awry because we often apply criteria inconsistently—and because we are not aware this is happening, we don’t build safeguards against inconsistent judgments.
We use plenty of mental shortcuts (known as heuristics) to make decisions in the workplace. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In certain contexts—such as an uncertain hiring environment—this “less is more” approach to making decisions can be beneficial. It stops us from overthinking things and allows us to move through our day more efficiently. However, these mental shortcuts can also lead us astray when it comes to interviewing candidates. In fact, the key tool in hiring decisions—the employment interview—has little correlation to job performance. For example, researchers at Yale studying the usefulness of the interview instructed half of their subjects to respond randomly to questions. Not only did the interviewers not realize the responses were random, but the end goal—their predictions of the interviewee’s next semester’s G.P.A—were much less accurate for students they interviewed than for those they didn’t. Why? Because we naturally want to make sense of the world around us, so we have no problem weaving a candidate’s words into a narrative that fits with the way we view things.
Hiring the right person can help a business reach new heights. But hiring the wrong person can have a large impact, too—and not the one you want. Numerous studies estimate the cost of a bad hire to be at least five figures, and even higher if it is for an executive role. Several heuristics and biases can lead to judgment errors during hiring, but when we understand them, we can start to build safeguards to keep ourselves from being swayed by them.
Here are the most common offenders that crop up in interviews, and they would love nothing more than to throw a wrench in your hiring process.
Confirmation bias: If you were asked whether you thought you were a helpful person or not, you would likely search your brain for instances in which you were, in fact, helpful and conclude that the answer is “yes.” That’s because we look for hits, rather than misses—because it’s easier. When we form first candidate impressions in those precious first seconds, we then spend the remainder of the interview searching for things that confirm our initial thoughts. Unfortunately, our initial impressions are often inaccurate.
Availability bias: Whatever piece of information is easiest to recall gets a disproportionately large voice in making decisions. Oftentimes, this can be the most recent piece of information we see or hear, so we give it more weight in influencing our decision than it perhaps merits. This works both in how we’re assessing the candidate during the interview, but also after when we’re making our decisions. For example, perhaps your interview is scheduled for immediately after you returned from a meeting with your boss and she was frustrated by “the lack of process around here!” Because of that, you likely will be more focused on the process-oriented aspects of a candidate’s experience than perhaps the role merits.
Similarity bias: Simply put, we like people who are like us. In one study, interviews rated job applicants higher who shared hobbies or interests with them. This is a large reason for the hiring discrimination that is often reported regarding race, age, gender, orientation and more. We’re looking for a match with a target, versus weighing the relative value of the candidate.
Representativeness heuristic: Closely related to similarity bias, this mental shortcut is applied to judging how likely something is to occur. So, if the candidate seems generally representative of the team you’re hiring them onto, it could lead you to thinking they’re a better fit than they actually are.
Affect heuristic: The embodiment of going with your gut, we often make snap decisions based on emotions. Does the candidate inspire awe, or inspiration? Is he or she incredibly likeable? When we have a positive gut feeling toward a candidate, we assume they are a high benefit and low risk option.
Now that we know what we are up against, the good news is there are several strategies HR leaders can use to debias either themselves or the environment to improve hiring decisions. Debiasing is the art of employing techniques that aim to improve the accuracy of individual judgment.
Ensure you are in an optimal state to make a decision. Just as judges have been shown to be more lenient at the beginning of the day or just after a food break session, so should you consider what factors may be influencing your decision. Are you tired or hungry, or perhaps having a stressful day? If so, hold off on making a decision.
Create (and use!) a consistent script. By following a pre-determined conversation script, you increase the reliability of the interview while simultaneously reducing the chances of veering into territory that could lead you into talking about personal interests that activate the similarity bias.
Prioritize your “must haves” – in advance. In some social sciences, there have been criticisms of “p-hacking,” a practice in which researches manipulate the data until they have the result they want. Now, more and more researchers are pre-registering their experiments—stating up front what they expect to happen and sharing their data after the fact—to avoid the tendency to make the data fit the conclusion they wish it supported. By “pre-registering” candidate must haves, you reduce the risk of manipulating the candidate and interview data to support the conclusion of hiring the person you’re most drawn to….who may not be the person who best matches up with your “must haves.”
Determine how important relevant factors are before beginning interviews. The easiest way to do this is to pick out which factors you will make your decision on—experience, results, personality, education, etc.—and then allocate percentage points to each factor so that the sum is 100. That can help bring more focus to something like experience, which could be quite critical to the role, and lessens the focus on personality, which could be more subject to certain biases. This technique of importance weighting is a way to make intuitive judgements more visible for all.
Supplement human decision-making with predictive tools and talent assessments. Recognizing that debiasing yourself entirely is incredibly difficult, consider implementing predictive hiring tools to supplement hiring decisions. Many companies have entered this field in recent years, so there is a plethora to choose from.
While the interview is here to stay for the foreseeable future, being aware of the heuristics and biases that can influence decisions—and controlling for them—can go a long way in improving your hiring decisions. And when you get the hiring process right, you get something even more valuable: engaged employees who power businesses.
Dana, Jason, Robyn Dawes, and Nathanial Peterson. "Belief in the Unstructured Interview: The Persistence of an Illusion." Judgment and Decision Making 8.5 (2013): 512-520. Rivera, Lauren A. "Hiring as Cultural Matching: The Case of Elite Professional Service Firms." American Sociological Review 77.6 (2012): 999-1022.  Danziger, S., Levav, J., & Avnaim-Pesso, L. (2011). Extraneous factors in judicial decisions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108, 6889-6892