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Taking Bias out of the Hiring Process

Carlos Acosta | 30.03.2021

Cognitive biases can happen even to the best of us, and the ramifications of these biases are all the more significant if you’re in the recruitment field. In fact, Harvard University conducted a series of studies called "Outsmarting Minds."

One of the key findings of the study was that hiring evaluations are prone to cognitive bias, whether conscious or unconscious. As a recruiter, how do you work through interviewer bias and make better decisions in the hiring process?

Cognitive Biases in the Hiring Process

The issue with cognitive biases is that they are highly nuanced—a lot of factors come into play, including our personal experiences, cultural influences, our own prejudices, and many more. In the field of talent acquisition, there are a few common cognitive biases that have been both studied and observed:

1. Facial structure

According to Carnegie Mellon University professor Christopher Olivola, people tend to judge a business person’s competence based on their facial structure. This kind of face bias often misguides people to conceive “competent-looking” business people as more valuable; that is, those with a more extroverted, open facial expression.

2. Attractiveness

Another age-old bias is one’s attractiveness. In the business world, there is a term called the “attractiveness halo,” coined by Strategy and international Management Professor Phil Rosenzweig.

Basically, the assumption is that attractive people are seen as kinder, smarter, and more appealing, creating a halo effect. What this means is that a candidate’s positive qualities are not job-related and one’s true value (i.e., skills and experience) can be trumped by one’s outward appearance. This can also lead recruiters to look past red flags in a candidate.

3. Race and ethnicity

Racial and cultural biases are controversial issues not just in hiring. Unfortunately, a study has found that hiring discrimination against Black Americans still exists and the numbers have not declined even in the past 25 years.

Facial features and even your name itself could be correlated to one’s race and could lead to bias. Another factor for racial and cultural bias is one’s accent and voice. People can identify a person’s cultural and ethnic background just by the sound of their voice and/or their accents, which can lead to biases.

4. Gender

Lastly, we have gender bias, and it’s an ongoing issue up to this day. A study by Weinberg College Psychology Professor Alice Eagly revealed that in some career areas, females are viewed more positively than males. Females are seen as being kinder, more nurturing, and warmer than their male counterparts. Males, however, are seen as being more competent and strong. But the more profound finding today based on a Yale study by Corinne Moss-Racusin and her colleagues is that females can also be biased against fellow females.

Other biases also exist, such as a candidate’s religion, sexual orientation, region or country of origin and age, to name a few.

Outsmarting Your Mind: Working though Interviewer Bias

The question now is, how do you outsmart your mind and not let your own biases as a recruiter misguide your decisions? Here are a few steps you can take:

1. Recognize the source of bias

The first step is making a conscious effort to be aware of your own biases, then recognize the sources of those bias—the triggers, so to speak. Ask yourself, what details in a candidate’s information and overall look prompt you to make assumptions? Is it their name, their face, their address, etc.?

2. Filter it out

The next step is to filter out the information that may cause you to be biased in your hiring decision. Be proactive: Automatically filter out irrelevant factors and focus on what’s relevant to the job role you’re hiring for.

3. Establish clear benchmarks for hiring

In conjunction with the second step, you must have clear benchmarks established prior to starting the hiring process. What are the criteria that you are looking for in a candidate? Consider both hard and soft skills. It may also be a good idea to categorize and prioritize the must-have qualifications along with the nice-to-haves.

4. Other actions you can take:

Cultural Nuances to Be Mindful of…

We asked some of our colleagues in The QualiFind Group and IRC Search Partners to give us their thoughts around potential bias that hiring managers may need to be aware of in their respective markets. Here are their comments:

Fabiana Zanini (São Paulo) observes Latin America’s relationship centric culture can be very conducive to bias. She says that many hiring managers across Latin America routinely express both conscious and unconscious interview bias with such common prejudicial statements as:

  • “I knew he / she was the right candidate in the first 5 minutes.”
  • “As soon as we shook hands, I already knew they were the right hire.”
  • “He / she is from (a specific suburb, city, country or region) and therefore they are…..”

These are all interview errors that we all struggle to avoid. We think that the best way to remove bias in addition to focusing on the “must haves” and “nice-to-haves” is for the interviewer to simply listen carefully to the candidate.

Brazil is a country where intense cultural / racial miscegenation is found. Therefore to ensure that the most qualified person is hired, these types of biases must be avoided and instead focus on the adequacy and competence of the candidates.

Colin Campbell (Toronto) says that a frequent bias seen from Canadian clients is linked to having an outgoing personality. Many hiring managers see having a “big personality” as somehow equating to having leadership skills. For example, it would be a stretch to say Bill Gates and/or Warren Buffet have big personalities and yet there is no doubt as to their leadership abilities. This is an area where we frequently have to counsel our clients in not discounting more reserved candidates.

Dubai / Egypt
Rania Abdalla is our IRC partner who works and resides in both Cairo & Dubai. Rania’s career prior to search and recruitment included senior HR roles with PepsiCo in the Middle East. She explains that stereotypes and paradigms regarding social class are sources for potential bias in the Middle East. In some Middle Eastern countries, a strong private education is an indicator of one’s social class. Many employers focus on hiring candidates that belong to a certain social class for reasons that vary from scoring high with clients to fitting in well with existing teams. Hence a lot of interviewers focus on assessing a candidate’s social class rather than their competencies. Questions could go as far as “what do your parents do for living?”. Such bias leads to a dilution of the assessment of core competencies and the inordinate focus on social backgrounds leads to a lack of diversity amongst teams. The end result is less focus on driving business results versus conformity to cultural bias or norms.

Similarly, another form of subconscious bias exists in other Middle Eastern countries where expats make up most of the workforce. Interviewers are sometimes inclined to recruit candidates from a specific country due to an assumption that they will better fit in with existing teams and clients.

Using emotional intelligence to reframe this unconscious bias is very useful. She sees client hiring managers dealing with this kind of bias through training and professional development in: self-awareness, self-management and control, organizational and cultural awareness as well as through mentoring and coaching.

Xochilt Acosta (Guadalajara) explains that she’s observed that some hiring managers often go into managerial-level interviews with a bit of hypersensitivity to vetting out candidates that show any signs of avoiding confrontation. While there is evidence that there is a predisposition to conflict avoidance within the Mexican culture, there are many tools for assessing it in the interview. It’s important that hiring managers seek out candidates that have a history of success and performance that is verifiable. Hiring managers that have been victim to bad hires where conflict avoidance was one of the contributing causes, should take particular care in assessing it in the interview. Mexico’s agribusiness and industrial sectors are now so integrated with multinational organizations that the more culturally astute management talent has become aware of the importance of dealing with this “cultural instinct” in a more progressive manner. As such the higher performers are typically more self-aware and therefore less likely to be subject to this bias.

Laura Gonzalez brings a very bicultural background into her work. Laura has dual citizenship with the US and Mexico and has spent almost equal times in both cultures. Laura has also recruited extensively across both the US and Mexico and as a result come to realize that both countries have regional variations in their cultural norms with the US having a much more ethnically diverse population. Laura says that she believes that more managers should spend time gaining a deeper understanding of the cultures they are working and interfacing with most often. That means stepping outside one’s comfort zone and learning what makes others tick in order to be more mindful of the potential for bias in the interview.

Let professional recruiters secure your next "Best Hire"

Here at The QualiFind Group, we have a solid track record of recruiting for both domestic and multinational companies and we take pride in our focus on multicultural understanding when assessing each candidate. If you need assistance in making an objective assessment of your potential hires or in improving your recruitment process as a whole, we’re here for you.

The QualiFind Group offers professional recruitment and headhunting services across the United States, Mexico, Canada, Brazil, and in other parts of the globe through IRC Global Search Partners.

Work with professional recruiters like The QualiFind Group for your next best hire. Contact us at https://www.qualifindgroup.com/en/contact/ to get started!