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Common Biases to Keep in Mind When Conducting an Interview

April 2, 2015

interviewerLet's flip the table, rather than conducting an interview, imagine you’re being interviewed for a new job. The interviewer starts off the conversation, asks you some questions about your work experience, background, and past behaviors. The interview is going great. They let you know you answered the last question; you are feeling comfortable and relaxed now that the interview is over, right? Wrapping up, they engage in some small talk, “Do you have any weekend plans?”

How you answer that question may provide information to the interviewer to make a judgment (or bias) against you, potentially dropping you out of the running for the position, even if well-qualified to perform the job appear to have a good fit. If you respond that you are attending a baseball game with your husband and son, a red flag appears. Why? Unfortunately interviewers (both male and female alike) have been using tactics like this to lure applicants into revealing personal information such as being married, number of children, and health issues. In a recent interviewing workshop, I encountered some HR professionals confess that they take part in these practices in engaging applicants into small talk to reveal information that they otherwise can’t (legally) ask in interviews.

This is an extreme case of an intentional bias, there also other common biases (which can be largely unconscious) that interviewers may encounter:

  • Contrast Effect Bias: When an evaluation of a candidate is influenced by your evaluations of other candidates.

  • Halo Error: Letting one characteristic (e.g. sales ability, communication) influence how you evaluate the candidate in other job-related areas.

  • First Impression Bias: Making an overall judgment about an individual based on job-irrelevant data collected during the first few minutes of an interview.

Reading this as an interviewer, you may argue that there is no foul if the candidates willingly provide this information. Even without intentional probing, applicants provide irrelevant, non job-related information during interviews. This information can lead to interviewers engaging in unconscious biases, especially if they are poorly trained to be aware of biases. It’s important to remember that the law forbids discrimination (i.e., race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, or age) when it comes to any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, fringe benefits, and any other term or condition of employment. The risk of a legal suit is real, but just as important, companies can potentially lose high-quality, productive employees if biases invade the hiring process.

But how can we curb these biases against applicants? Focusing on position competencies (i.e., knowledge, skills, & abilities) required for job success is key. Structured interviewing is important to adhere in practice since it can help ensure consistent questions across applicants, reducing time wasted and keeping the interview about the job and the individual’s ability to perform the job. It’s been said that bias is clearly one of the best-documented challenges to overcome in the interview. Keeping up with the latest interviewing techniques and becoming aware of common interview mistakes can greatly increase chances of selecting the best person.

So let’s keep the small talk for the onboarding lunch with your new top-rated employee, who you obtained by concentrating on finding the best fit through best practices with assessments and interviewing.

Managing Remote Workers

Jessica Petor Jessica Petor is a Research Analyst located at PSI's Pittsburgh office. She holds a Master of Science degree in Industrial Organizational Psychology from Northern Kentucky University.