How Employers Can Use Structured Interviews to Reduce Bias in Hiring

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Talent acquisition is the lifeblood of every organization that hopes to achieve long-term growth and success. Yet, despite its importance, hiring rarely receives the same attention as other key business objectives. As a result, employers are sometimes left with numerous employees who aren’t equipped to help them meet those objectives.

The primary problem is that traditional hiring processes tend to favor individuals who have exceptional interpersonal communication skills — even if those skills aren’t particularly critical to the role in question. When a process is anchored in a series of unstructured interviews with candidates, it reveals which candidates are comfortable handling interviews but often provides little additional insight into their abilities. The reality is that many smart, highly qualified people who would make great employees might not be as great in interviews or might be having an off day.

Moreover, interviewers’ personal preferences may influence hiring decisions when unstructured interviews comprise the bulk of the candidate experience. Interviewers, like everyone else, have biases that shape the way they perceive and relate to others, and those biases are hard to manage in interview settings. That’s not just a barrier to hiring qualified people; it’s also a recipe for trouble. If a candidate accuses an organization of discriminatory hiring practices, it’s often challenging to demonstrate unbiased decision-making when an employer relies solely on unstructured interviews. That said, using more than unstructured interviews is critical for companies to reduce bias in hiring.

A Better Way to Hire

The biggest issue with relying solely on unstructured interviews to gauge candidate abilities is that the work associated with most jobs isn’t conducted in an interview setting. Yet many companies continue to use interviews as their primary hiring tool, usually because they don’t know a better alternative.

Fortunately, there are alternatives. The best results come when employers adhere to the following best practices:

1. Prioritize Structured Interviews When Evaluating Job Applicants

One critical component of making better, fairer hiring decisions is understanding the difference between structured and unstructured interviews. Structured interviews are specifically designed to overcome the weaknesses inherent in unstructured interviews: the lack of standardized questions and scoring criteria and the low validity (or lack of correlation between interview performance and job performance). Thus, they tend to result in better hiring decisions.

Structured interviews employ carefully designed questions based on an exhaustive analysis of a given role. Because each applicant receives the same set of questions, it’s possible to craft accurate and reliable scoring criteria to measure performance against an objective standard. The questions are administered uniformly and create a level playing field for all candidates.

Developing an effective hiring process around structured interviews takes time. Employers must understand the knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) associated with each position and ensure that each interview question directly ties to one or more KSAs. They also need to develop high-quality scoring criteria and identify multiple raters to evaluate candidate results. Finally, they must commit to making hiring decisions based on these results and resist the urge to override them based on an affinity for a given candidate.

2. Supplement Interviews With Multi-Modal Assessments

Whenever possible, an organization should consider supplementing hiring interviews with objectively scored confirmatory assessments. We call these multi-modal assessments. For example, if a large portion of the job involves writing effectively, include a writing assessment with the interview. If the position requires a significant amount of knowledge on a particular topic, consider a multiple-choice assessment as a supplement.

For example, one of our customers had developed an interview for a research scientist position. They received quite a few applicants who appeared to be exceptional on paper; they all had Ph.D.s and years of experience, and each interviewed well. But the customer was not confident that they were getting a complete sense of their abilities.

After reviewing the position’s requirements, we worked with her to develop a brief multiple-choice test that the hiring manager could use as an objective evaluation tool. It contained fundamental statistical questions that any college student should be able to answer quickly. To the surprise of the hiring manager, most of these seemingly highly qualified applicants could not answer them. If those candidates had been hired, they would have been severely limited in their ability to contribute to the team.

By including one or more high-quality aptitude assessments in the interview process, employers give applicants who might struggle during interviews the opportunity to demonstrate their abilities related to the role in question. These assessments allow you to account for a more significant proportion of the job requirements during screening and ultimately lead to more informed hiring decisions.

3. Utilize Data to Hire Smarter

Most organizations dedicate ample resources to performance management, corrective disciplinary processes, and training programs to address workforce skills gaps. By comparison, relatively few dedicate resources to ensuring that hiring practices are valid, reliable, and job-related or take the time to assess whether hiring decisions are leading to optimal performance outcomes.

However, many of the performance issues that arise over an employee’s tenure can be predicted and avoided by implementing high-quality, data-driven hiring processes. Imagine if you were able to reduce the occurrence of these issues across your workforce by, say, half? For most organizations, that would translate to hugely significant cost savings.

Simply put, it pays to invest in your hiring processes. A thoughtful redesign of your talent acquisition program can be an intimidating prospect — particularly in the current hiring environment when many employers are struggling to fill vacant positions — but don’t let short-term obstacles deter you. By improving your hiring practices today, you’re ultimately putting your organization in the best position to achieve long-term success.

Jim Higgins is a director of talent assessment at Biddle Consulting Group, Inc.


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By Jim Higgins