What is Interview Bias and Why Does it Matter?

Last Updated on February 15, 2024 by Milton Campbell

Interview bias refers to the tendency for interviewers to make hiring decisions based on personal biases, rather than a candidate’s qualifications. Many different types of biases can affect the interview process. 

Common Types of Interview Bias

Interviewer bias can take many forms during the interview process. Being aware of the common types of bias can help identify when they occur. Here are four prevalent biases that can negatively impact interview assessments:

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias happens when an interviewer forms an initial positive or negative impression of the candidate, and then disproportionately notices or remembers details that reinforce that impression. Information that contradicts the initial perspective is often dismissed or forgotten. This makes it very difficult for the interviewer’s perception to change throughout the interview.

First Impression Bias

First impression bias refers to an interviewer making snap judgments about a candidate in the first few seconds or minutes of meeting them. Factors like physical appearance, handshake, eye contact, attire, grooming, and initial small talk can strongly influence this first impression. Once formed, this perception tends to persist and color the rest of the interview.

Similarity Bias

Similarity bias occurs when an interviewer feels instinctive positivity toward candidates who share similar interests, experiences, backgrounds, or demographics as themselves. The interviewer gives subtle preference to candidates they identify with most closely. This can disadvantage candidates from underrepresented groups.

Contrast Bias

In contrast bias, an interviewer’s perception of one candidate gets influenced by a previous interview. For example, if a highly anxious candidate is followed by a very polished one, the second individual may seem exceptional partly due to the contrast with the previous interviewee. The sequence matters more than it should.

Stereotyping

Stereotyping occurs when an interviewer judges a candidate based on preconceived notions about groups the candidate belongs to, rather than assessing their individual qualifications. For example, assuming someone is disorganized because they are young, or that an older candidate won’t pick up new skills as quickly. Being aware of societal stereotypes can help interviewers recognize and work against this bias.

Halo Effect

The halo effect happens when an interviewer’s positive first impression of a candidate leads them to see all their attributes in an overly favorable light. For example, because the candidate made a great first impression, the interviewer may overlook weaknesses revealed later. Interviewers should be aware the halo effect can cause them to inflate their evaluation of a favored candidate.

Recency Bias

Recency bias occurs when an interviewer focuses too heavily on a candidate’s most recent job or academic experience, while not giving enough weight to older experience. For example, discounting a candidate’s proven work record at previous jobs because their most recent role was less senior. Interviewers should consider the candidate’s full range of experience.

Nonverbal Bias

Nonverbal signals like body language, eye contact, and tone of voice can unconsciously shape an interviewer’s impression of a candidate. For example, they may form biases based on how much a candidate smiles, their posture, or how loud their voice is. Being aware of nonverbal bias can help interviewers make evaluations based on qualifications rather than nonverbal factors.

How Does Unconscious Bias Affect Interviews?

We all have unconscious biases formed from our background, cultural environment, and personal experiences. These are the subtle, implicit associations our brain makes that affect our attitudes and actions. During interviews, unconscious bias can negatively influence the perceptions of candidates.

The interviewer may make snap judgments about applicants based on stereotypes rather than their qualifications and skills. For example, they may see a candidate’s older age, foreign name, or nervous body language as negatives. Or they could lean towards candidates that remind them of themselves and rate those with similar backgrounds or personalities higher.

This unconscious bias can lead to unfair assessments of candidates. An interviewer focused on looking for faults in an interviewee they feel negatively about may give them poor ratings. Or they could give higher scores to a likable candidate despite weak qualifications.

Left unchecked, unconscious bias can significantly impact who gets hired. If an interviewer harbors biases against certain demographics, those candidates may get rejected or rated lower. Then the hiring decision is based on subjective feelings rather than merit. Unconscious bias often works against diversity and hiring the best person for the job. Being aware of its influence can help interviewers avoid this hiring pitfall.

Strategies to Avoid Interviewer Bias

Avoiding bias as an interviewer takes intentional effort, but some strategies can reduce bias during the hiring process. Here are some best practices:

  • Use standardized interview questions. Having a predetermined set of questions for each candidate decreases biases that can creep in when questions are chosen on the fly. Prepare questions ahead of time that specifically relate to the required qualifications. Ask each candidate the same slate of questions in the same order, and evaluate them on the same rating scale. This structure increases fairness and objectivity.

  • Have multiple interviewers. Having more than one person talk to and assess each candidate helps balance out individual biases. Comparing evaluations from different perspectives provides a more holistic view of the candidate’s fit. Panel interviews also allow interviewers to discuss any biases they observe in each other.

  • Take structured notes. Focus on taking detailed, objective notes about the candidate’s responses rather than relying on memory or intuition. Avoid cryptic or subjective comments that may be influenced by bias. Record relevant facts from the candidate’s work history and interview answers to justify your eventual hiring decision.

  • Limit small talk. Chatting about personal interests before the interview can prime interviewers to look for shared interests and similarities with the candidate. Stick to the structured interview guide as much as possible to keep the focus on qualifications. Save more casual conversation for after the hiring decision is made.

How to Spot Your Own Biases

Reflecting on your own potential biases is an important first step in reducing bias in the hiring process. Here are some strategies to identify your own unconscious biases:

  • Reflect on past decisions – Think back to previous hiring decisions you’ve made. Look for any patterns that may indicate bias, such as consistently hiring candidates with similar backgrounds to yourself. Examining past decisions can help reveal blindspots.

  • Get feedback from others – Ask for open and honest feedback from colleagues about your interactions and decisions during the hiring process. An outside perspective can sometimes spot unconscious biases that you miss.

  • Take implicit association tests – These tests are designed to uncover hidden biases. The tests measure response times when associating positive/negative words with things like gender, race, age. Faster associations between groups and negative words may indicate an unconscious bias. Taking these tests can help interviewers recognize biases they weren’t previously aware of.

Regular self-reflection, feedback, and testing can help interviewers recognize their own unconscious biases. This self-awareness is the first step toward removing bias from the hiring process. Interviewers should continuously evaluate their decisions to ensure all candidates get fair treatment based on their qualifications alone.

Creating an Interview Guide

To reduce bias and inconsistency in the interview process, it is important to create a structured interview guide. An interview guide outlines the format of the interview and includes standardized questions that every candidate will be asked. Here are some tips for creating an effective interview guide:

  • Use an outline format – Organize the guide into clear sections starting with an introduction, then key skills and experience questions, situational questions, and closing questions. This provides consistency.

  • Write standardized questions – Develop a set of questions that will be asked to every candidate in the same order. This increases fairness and makes comparisons between candidates easier. Avoid questions that are vague or may illicit biased responses.

  • Establish rating criteria – Determine how responses will be evaluated and scored. For each question, define what an excellent, good, average, and poor answer would include. This reduces subjectivity when scoring responses.

  • Involve multiple interviewers – When creating the guide, obtain input from other interviewers. Allowing multiple people to review the questions reduces individual biases and improves objectivity.

  • Test and refine – Pilot the interview guide on a few mock interviews. Adjust any unclear questions and confirm the guide is effective before using it for real candidates.

By developing a standardized and structured interview guide, organizations can improve quality of hire and reduce the impact of interviewer bias. The guide format, predefined questions, objective scoring, and multiple reviewers lead to fairer, more consistent interviews.

Nonverbal Cues and First Impressions

Nonverbal communication and first impressions can significantly impact interviews. Studies show that nonverbal cues like facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language shape our initial judgments within the first few seconds of meeting someone.

As an interviewer, be aware of how you may unconsciously react to nonverbal cues. Limit unnecessary small talk and focus the conversation on evaluating the candidate’s skills and qualifications. Remain engaged through positive body language like smiling, nodding, and leaning slightly forward.

A few strategies to help interviewers become aware of nonverbal bias:

  • Maintain a neutral facial expression and open posture. Avoid crossed arms or frowning which can send negative signals.

  • Modulate your tone of voice to sound pleasant and interested. Vocal variety demonstrates active listening.

  • Make regular eye contact without staring. Looking away or down frequently can suggest discomfort or disinterest.

  • Sit about 3 to 5 feet from the candidate, leaning in slightly to show engagement.

  • Keep distracting gestures to a minimum. Limit pen-tapping, watch-glancing, etc.

With awareness and practice, interviewers can learn to minimize nonverbal bias and focus on the candidate’s abilities. Make an effort to override first impressions so they don’t color your assessment as the interview proceeds.

Training to Reduce Unconscious Bias

Unconscious bias can be difficult to recognize in yourself, but with proper training, you can raise your own self-awareness and reduce bias in interviews. Here are some tips:

Conduct diversity training. Require all staff involved in hiring to undergo unconscious bias or diversity training. This can illuminate common biases and provide strategies to counteract them. Roleplaying exercises can help interviewers spot bias in action.

Use an interview guide. Develop a structured interview guide with clear criteria that every candidate is measured against. Ask the same core questions in the same order to every applicant to standardize the process.

Seek peer feedback. Ask a colleague to observe some interviews and provide feedback afterward. They may be able to point out if you appeared biased for or against a candidate.

Reflect on your own biases. Take an implicit association test to uncover hidden biases. Also, reflect after each interview about what prior assumptions or first impressions you may have had about the candidate to recognize any biases.

Slow down. Make a conscious effort not to make snap judgments. Tell yourself you do not have enough information yet to evaluate the candidate. Slow down your thinking to make more objective assessments.

With greater self-awareness, structured interviews, and training, you can work to reduce unconscious bias in your hiring. This results in fairer, more equitable recruiting that surfaces the best candidates regardless of similarities to yourself.

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