Are You Aware of Your Hiring Biases?

Gender, race and beauty hiring biases have been well-documented, but they’re not the only biases that come into play when hiring. A hiring manager’s cognitive biases matter, too.

Cognitive biases are predictable patterns of thought that people unconsciously fall back on to navigate complicated decisions by making answers seem simple and intuitive even though they aren’t. “In the worst of situations,” says You Are Not So Smart author David McRaney, “They cause us to mistake our shortcuts for logic.” The result is an undeserved overconfidence that we arrived at our assumptions through logic and reason.

Hiring decisions are complicated, yet how many hiring managers stop and think about the many seemingly innocent ways they’re biased? (You may pat yourself on the back if you have.)

Over 100 cognitive biases exist. Here are a few that hiring managers should keep in mind:

Anchoring: Relying too heavily on one piece of information when making a decision.

Example: You interview someone who was unemployed for a long period of time, and you let this fact weigh more heavily than the applicant’s otherwise solid qualifications.

Bandwagon Effect: Believing something because many other people do.

Example: You think a candidate is right for the job, but others disagree with you. Someone under the sway of the Bandwagon Effect might be convinced that the candidate is not right because the group’s opinion holds higher value than their own judgment.

Confirmation Bias: The granddaddy of all cognitive biases. It’s the tendency to prove that one’s own assumptions about the world are correct by looking for confirmation of preconceived notions instead of testing those assumptions.

Example: When you interview graduates from a top university, you might look for evidence they’re good workers rather than testing that assumption.

Decoy Effect: When a preference for option A or B changes in favor to option B when option C is presented. Option C is similar to option B, but it’s not better.

Example: You’re struggling to choose between two good candidates, and then you interview a third candidate. Suddenly you’re infatuated with one of your first two candidates even though the original candidates’ value has not changed.

Illusory Correlation: Inaccurately perceiving a relationship between two unrelated events.

Example: Lowering your opinion about a job candidate who worked at two companies that failed through no fault of the applicant.

Social Comparison Bias: The tendency when making hiring decisions to favor candidates who don’t compete with one’s own strengths.

Example: The head of a sales team who likes to think he’s the funniest guy in the room favors the candidate who will not steal the spotlight.

A close relative of the cognitive bias is the logical fallacy. You may have studied logical fallacies in a psychology class in college. They’re worth brushing up on. Cognitive fallacies—like cognitive biases—reveal a lack of sound thinking.

Because cognitive biases occur unconsciously, they’re difficult to eliminate. Being aware of them is not enough to tamp them down, according to bias researchers Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. Jim Benson, the author of Why Plans Fail: Cognitive Bias, Decision Making, and Your Business, encourages hiring managers to step back and think about their cognitive biases within the context of the system in which they occur.

“HR and our current hiring practices are built almost entirely on cognitive bias,” Benson said. “Reducing it involves major upheavals in the profession.

“You can’t deal with cognitive bias without dealing with the systems in which those cognitive biases occur.”

Benson’s advice to hiring managers:

1. Understand why you are hiring people

Job descriptions are inherently biased. There is a drive to be overly precise in the job description because ambiguity is cognitively distressing. The fact is, the more precise you are the more limited your candidate pool will be.

2. Understand that you are hiring people

Individuals are worth more than resumes. Many of the architects of the tech boom would not be hired by their own companies today because they did not go to college, did poorly in high school and would have arrived with zero references.

3. Understand that any decision you make is greatly impacted by cognitive bias

So hire with more than one person and don’t use a checklist.

4. Understand that your checklist reduces options for your company

Ask, “Why is this person right for the job?” instead of focusing on why that applicant should be eliminated.

5. Look for ways to be surprised or enlightened by candidates

Expect no one to be right for the job; expect them to be perfectly not-right for the job.

6. Understand that your company is a system

You are plugging people into that system. Are you honest about how your company treats people? How does the company motivate people to innovate, improve and create? Will this person with the perfect resume actually survive in this culture? Will this person make the culture better?

Cognitive biases are extremely difficult to eliminate, but with forethought and the proper systems in place, they can be mitigated, and that’s a laudable goal.

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