November 18, 2014

Don’t Let Biases Derail Your Hiring Process

Paper Bags“If you are human, you are biased,” proclaims “Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgments in Our Daily Lives,” the latest book from Howard J. Ross, founder and chief learning officer of Cook Ross, Inc.

Perhaps such a statement makes you feel bad: Me? Biased? Really? No way!

Fear not: being biased doesn’t make you a bad person. “We’ve developed a way of looking at bias over the years which I call the ‘bias=badness’ paradigm — the notion that bias is a bad thing for human beings, and we have to eliminate it,” Ross says. “But the reality is that the human mind uses bias as a natural way to function.”

Sometimes, bias can have a dramatically negative impact, as in the case of discriminatory behavior or worse – e.g., a situation like the Trayvon Martin shooting. But it’s important to realize that bias can also function positively, Ross says: “If I were to come up to you in a menacing way, and you were to read the signals very quickly and get into a defensive posture, it can potentially save your life, because of the fact that you can read my behavior, and you’ve learned to have a bias against that kind of behavior.”

Bias is neither inherently negative nor positive — but we need to be aware of our biases, because they can have undesirable impacts on the decisions we make, especially when our biases are unconscious.

“Most [bias] is unconscious,” Ross says. “When it’s unconscious, we have no way to determine whether or not it is causing us to engage in negative ways.”

Recruiters and hiring managers need to be especially vigilant when it comes to unconscious biases, because these may cause them to miss out on great hires for silly reasons.

Bias in the Hiring Process

Imagine you are a musician. As such, you may be drawn to other musicians. Now, imagine you are a musician who also happens to be in charge of hiring a new customer service representative for your company. If a candidate who is also a musician walks in, you may be drawn to that candidate above all others, simply because of your shared interests.

“Chances are very slim that being a musician will have anything to do with their ability to perform the job that [you’re] hiring them for,” Ross cautions. “[You] have to be very careful to notice that, and at the same time try to mitigate it having an influence in [your] decisions.”

“When we’re going out and recruiting, we’re often making very quick decisions about people,” Ross says. Unconscious biases can easily sneak into these quick decisions without people even noticing, causing them to make poor hiring decisions.

“We might have biases toward people who are outgoing more than people who are introverted, and the way the process is set up might encourage people who are outgoing to get noticed more,” Ross explains. “This might unconsciously stop us from getting a better candidate who is just quieter, or who might come from a culture where they might wait to be invited to the conversation, rather than assert themselves into the conversation.”

This is not the only way in which unconscious biases can enter the hiring process. Because unconscious biases, by their very nature, slip past us unperceived, they can end up unduly influencing the types of talent we attract before the interview stage even occurs.

“Through our job descriptions, without even realizing it, we may sound more appealing to certain people than other people,” Ross says. “Does the description demonstrate an imbalance in gender or cultural patterns? For example, male versus female pronouns or adjectives that might be culturally influenced, like ‘high-powered’ or ‘relationship-oriented,’ which we have a tendency in our culture to unconsciously associate with ‘male’ and ‘female.'”

Ultimately, unconscious biases can lead employers to attract or select certain types of people more than others — which can prevent employers from really accessing the best possible candidates.

The Positive Power of Uncertainty

In order to make better hiring decisions, employers need to recognize and analyze the unconscious biases that may be affecting their choices. Ross says employers can do this by practicing “constructive uncertainty.”

“We live in a culture — particularly American culture — that loves certainty. We think that people are better leaders — that they’re more appealing — if they’re very definitive,” Ross says. One can easily observe this fact by looking at the public’s approach to political leaders.

“When people take too long to come to terms with a decision, we say that they’re dithering,” Ross says. “The notion that it might make sense to slow down our process to be a little more thoughtful is sort of counterintuitive to who we are as Americans. We’re fast-moving, we make decisions, we move on, we get things done.”

Unfortunately for the fast-moving Americans among us, the research shows that people can actually make more thoughtful decisions when they slow down and take the time to think.

Ross’s “constructive uncertainty” requires that people stop and think about the choices they want to make, asking themselves questions like, “What makes me think that? What am I reacting to? Why do I have such a strong negative or positive reaction to this person?”

“All of those thoughts require metacognition, but those thoughts will tend to be skipped right over if we’re moving too fast,” Ross explains.

At the same time, employers — and other decision-makers — should try to avoid what Ross calls “paralysis by analysis.” That is, spending unnecessary time on decisions while they try to seek out any possible unconscious biases that may be influencing them.

“When I say ‘constructive uncertainty,’ what I mean is simply to build into our processes times where we take a judicious pause,” Ross says.

For example, if everyone on the hiring team is ready to hire a particular candidate, Ross suggests that the team stop for a second and think about it: if a person were to object to a candidate, why might they object? What possible flaws could they find? Such a pause injects some healthy skepticism into the proceedings, which could help the hiring team uncover unconscious biases in themselves or defects in the candidate they may otherwise overlook.

“The most important thing, more than anything else, is that people recognize that they have bias. Everybody does. There’s no exceptions to that,” Ross says.

His advice: “Learn to watch [yourself] in action a little bit more. The more attention we pay to our biases, the less they’ll unconsciously run our decision-making.”

Read more in Selection

Matthew Kosinski is the managing editor of