The Biases You Face When Hiring

January / 2021
Authors: Dr. Josh Cotton, George Randle and Mike Sarraille

The following is adapted from The Talent War.

You are biased. It’s not a criticism, but a simple fact of life. We’re all biased and naturally drawn to the people who look and think like us. 

While people who are similar to us might be likable, that’s not a good reason to hire someone. As Soichiro Honda said, “If you hire only those people you understand, the company will never get people better than you are. Always remember that you often find outstanding people among those you don’t particularly like.”

You don’t want to hire what amounts to mini-me’s. Your company already has you. What it needs is people who are different from you, with different strengths and ways of thinking.

Bias is unavoidable, but not insurmountable. By understanding the cognitive biases that arise in assessment and selection, you can avoid falling into the trap of hiring people just like you.

In-Group Bias

In-group bias is the tendency to give preferential treatment to people we perceive as being part of our group. 

Studies have shown that, in betting, people will bet on their own group, even if there is no reason to do so. If the odds are the same or even slightly in favor of the opposing group, people will still bet on their own group for no reason other than the fact that they are in that group.  Essentially, people think, “If I’m in a group, that group is better.” 

We are all a part of any number of different groups. In hiring, in-group bias means that we might give preferential treatment to people who are our same gender or race, who attended the same school as us, who earned the same degree, who worked at the same company, or who simply support the same sports team as us.

If you have a good “gut feeling” about a candidate, ask yourself whether it could be due to in-group bias.

Halo Effect

The halo effect is the tendency to allow a positive impression of a person in one area to influence your opinion in another area. 

Say a candidate worked for a prestigious company. Due to the halo effect, that single positive indicator makes you more likely to think positively of the person as a whole, blinding you to potential red flags. 

As an example of the halo effect in interviewing, if somebody answers the first few questions well, you may decide that they are a quality candidate and thus give them higher ratings on the remaining questions; conversely, if they answer poorly, you may decide they are not a good candidate and rate them more harshly on the following questions.

To combat this bias, try switching candidates in your mind. Ask yourself, “If it was Candidate B saying this, would I feel the same way?”

Confirmation Bias

Connected to the halo effect is confirmation bias—the tendency to interpret information in a way that supports your preconceived beliefs. 

If you decide early on that a person would be a good hire, because perhaps they graduated from an Ivy League school, you will only pay attention to the information that supports your belief. 

Confirmation bias can work in the opposite direction too: if you believe a person would be a bad hire, you will only see the negative information that reinforces that belief.

With every candidate, make a concerted effort to search for both strengths and weaknesses.

One-Trick-Pony Fallacy

The one-trick-pony fallacy is our term for the tendency to think people can be good at only one thing. We tend to put people in boxes. If they are extremely good or specialized in one area, we reduce them to that one thing. For instance, we wouldn’t expect that a famous baseball player would also be an excellent piano player or accountant. 

It’s actually rare for people to be exceptionally knowledgeable or skilled at only one thing. In general, if someone has figured out how to be good at one thing, they have the underlying character needed to become good at many other things. 

The one-trick-pony fallacy is most often an issue when it comes to translating a candidate’s experience from one industry to another. For instance, people often see Special Operations soldiers as warriors and warriors alone, when in reality, they also have desk jobs. 

A great way to handle this bias is to consider not just what candidates have accomplished, but how they did it. This shifts the focus to fundamental character traits (like drive, resiliency, adaptability, and so on).

Create a Diversity of Thought

General Patton said, “If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.”

When everyone thinks the same way, you limit what your company can accomplish. Companies are most successful when they contain a diversity of thought. With more perspectives, you can come up with more and better solutions.

But in order to have a diversity of thought at your company, you must hire for it. 

By becoming aware of your potential for bias, you will be more likely to recognize it in action and counteract it, allowing you to hire people with diverse backgrounds, strengths, and thought processes. 

For more advice on building an effective hiring team, you can find The Talent War on Amazon.

Mike Sarraille is the CEO of EF Overwatch, an executive search and talent advisory firm, and leadership consultant with Echelon Front. He is a former Recon Marine and retired US Navy SEAL officer with twenty years of experience in Special Operations, including the elite Joint Special Operations Command.

George Randle is a Strategic Advisor to EF Overwatch, former US Army officer, and Vice President of Global Talent Acquisition at Forcepoint, a human-centric cybersecurity company. George has more than two decades of experience in talent acquisition at Fortune 100 and Fortune 1000 firms.

Dr. Josh Cotton is an expert in talent assessment and employee effectiveness. He has designed scientifically valid candidate selection practices for the US Navy SEALs and Fortune 100 companies and has advised leaders at DuPont, Omnicom, CSX, and Flowserve.