Everyone Has Hiring Bias—Even You

Diversity hiring is a key initiative for a lot of small and midsize businesses (SMBs) in 2017 for a reason. Job seekers are looking for diverse employers more than ever and a diverse workforce can benefit these companies in a lot of ways.

There’s just one problem standing in the way: hiring bias. And everyone has it.

Yes, even you. *record scratch*

You right now


Relax! I’m not implying you’re some kind of monstrous bigot. You’re simply human. And that trait, whether you realize it or not, is negatively affecting your ability to hire diverse talent.

In this article, we’ll explain why everyone has hiring bias (and why they can’t just get rid of it). Then we’ll look at 10 types of cognitive bias that can occur in hiring decisions, ending with tips and tools to combat them.

Why Everyone Has Hiring Bias

Human beings are faced with tough decisions every day—from what to eat for lunch to determining whether that dress really was white and gold or black and blue. Being the supposedly superior species that we are, we believe our brains can objectively analyze all of the information available and produce the optimal answer.

It’s black and blue by the way. (Source: Wikipedia)


If you’ve ever made a bad decision though, you know that doesn’t always happen.

In fact, when presented with contradictory or nonsensical information, we employ all sorts of leaps in logic to arrive at a decision. We tend to:

In other words, everyone’s brain will always seek comfort and reassurance in the familiar, and that’s no less true when it comes to hiring decisions.

An oft-cited 2012 study published by the American Sociological Association found that instead of skills or experience, it was actually a person’s similarity to the interviewer and the company as a whole that was the most common method used to assess applicants at the job interview stage.

This unintentional search for similarity and familiarity explains how even the most sophisticated, well-intentioned recruiting outfits can be riddled with hiring biases that roadblock diversity recruiting efforts. Short of a lobotomy (which I wouldn’t recommend), these inherent biases can’t be easily eliminated.

The solution, then, is to reduce the effects of these inherent biases or factor them out of recruiting processes altogether. In the next sections, we’ll explain how this can be done.

10 Types of Cognitive Biases That Affect Hiring Decisions

You can’t eliminate your biases, but you can take steps to mitigate their influence—and the first step is to become more knowledgeable about different biases so you can get better at identifying when they’re occurring.

Using Gartner as a reference, here are 10 common cognitive biases that can affect hiring decisions you should look out for:


1. Anchoring

What it is: Anchoring is the tendency to rely too heavily on one data point or piece of information when making a decision—usually the first piece of information you encounter on a subject.

A hiring example: If you’ve ever fixated on an undergrad’s GPA when hiring for an internship or entry-level role—because it’s an easy metric to compare and appears at the top of most resumes—that’s anchoring bias. This also happens often when you’re looking to hire someone to replace an employee who left or retired (e.g., “We need to hire someone like Ben.”) In this case, Ben is the anchor.

2. Availability heuristic

What it is: The availability heuristic describes the tendency to rely on recent or emotionally charged memories when evaluating a specific topic, concept, method or decision.

A hiring example: Memories can have a significant effect on how you view candidates, to the point where even a common first name can carry baggage. If you just broke up with a man named Brad, for example, those negative feelings can unfairly carry over to any applicants named Brad.

3. Bandwagon effect

What it is: If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you jump too? The bandwagon effect says you would, as it describes the tendency to do (or believe) something simply because other people do (or believe) it.

A hiring example: This happens often in group hiring decisions. Everyone in the group loves a certain candidate…except for one. But rather than voice that contrary opinion—which might irk others or extend the discussion period—they’ll bury what they think and go along with the rest of the group’s decision (which might not always be the right one).

4. Confirmation bias

What it is: Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, focus on or remember information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions.

A hiring example: Did you know that 60 percent of interviewers will make up their mind about a candidate within 15 minutes of meeting them? Once that decision is made, the tendency with everything that follows—e.g., the rest of the interview, calling references, doing a background check—is to spend time confirming that initial decision (focusing on good qualities for ‘yes’ candidates or focusing on bad qualities for ‘no’ candidates) instead of doing a proper assessment. That’s confirmation bias.

5. Clustering illusion

What it is: Clustering illusion is the tendency to overestimate small streaks or trends in a large sample of random data.

A hiring example: Say you’re down to two candidates for a position: one from Tennessee and another from New York. You’re struggling to make a decision until you remember that your last three stellar hires have all been from New York. Based on that, you should go with the New York candidate to continue the streak, right? Wrong. Not only is the fact that your last three great hires were from New York likely irrelevant, it also has no bearing on your current decision.

6. Information bias

What it is: Information bias is the tendency to want to acquire more information, even if that information is irrelevant to the decision at hand.

A hiring example: Related to our tendency to acquire unnecessary information is the tendency to equate the most information with the best option. If one job seeker proactively provides work samples and their social media profiles with their application, that’s a great sign they have desirable qualities, but it doesn’t automatically make them the best candidate out of the group. Learn more about the others before making a decision.

7. Ostrich effect

What it is: The ostrich effect is the tendency to ignore negative information rather than factor it into a decision. The name comes from the myth that ostriches will bury their head in the sand when trouble arises instead of dealing with it.

A hiring example: Have you ever come across the perfect candidate for a role, save for one major red flag—a less-than-stellar reference or they were late to an interview? What did you do? If you ignored it because the candidate was too good to pass up, that’s the ostrich effect. That red flag could end up being a huge deal, resulting in a bad hire.

8. Outcome bias

What it is: Outcome bias occurs when you judge a decision solely based on the end result, ignoring the quality of the decision at the time it was made.

A hiring example: Your team can do all of the right things to surface the best candidate for a position, only for that person to not work out. That doesn’t necessarily mean your recruiting function is broken. Conversely, your team can do all the wrong things and luck into a great hire, but that doesn’t mean you should keep doing what you’re doing. Focus on your processes and criteria, instead of the end result, to avoid outcome bias.

9. Overconfidence effect

What it is: The overconfidence effect is a bias where a person’s confidence in their decisions is often greater than the objective accuracy of those decisions.

A hiring example: The overconfidence effect simply states that even hiring decisions that you’re 100 percent confident in don’t actually work out 100 percent of the time. The lesson here? Don’t expedite a candidate through important assessment processes just because you and your team are certain they’re the “one.”

10. Stereotyping

What it is: Stereotyping occurs when you expect a member of a group to have certain characteristics without having actual information about that individual.

A hiring example: This is where sexism, racism, ageism and every other awful “-ism” comes into play. Bottom line: Don’t assume someone is a poor candidate simply because they belong to a group with traits irrelevant to their ability to perform a job.

4 Tips and Tools for SMBs to Combat Hiring Bias

According to research by GetApp, 23 percent of job seekers think that all companies have biased hiring practices. They’re not totally off-base. As we’ve shown, a number of inherent biases in individuals can have a profound effect on their ability to assess candidates objectively, resulting in homogenous—and often bad—hires.

A survey by CareerBuilder confirms many employers have regretted a past hiring decision:

Inherent biases are unavoidable, but process biases are not. Here are some tips and tools to eliminate bias from your recruiting processes and ensure you make the best hiring decision every time:

1. Whip your job postings into shape

The tip: If your applicant pool isn’t as diverse as you’d hoped, it could be due to biased language in your job postings. Words like “fresh” or “up and coming” can subtly deter older workers, for example, while a term like “salesman” can discourage women job seekers from applying. Reword your job descriptions if this is the case, because it can potentially broaden your talent pool in this highly competitive talent market.

The tool: Textio can analyze your job descriptions and suggest ways to improve their likelihood to attract job seekers of all varieties. Recruiting suites like Halogen TalentSpace also have embedded job description tools.

2. Standardize processes where possible

The tip: Biases can easily creep in when the members of your recruiting and hiring teams are left to their own devices to assess applicants—asking different questions during interviews or using different criteria to measure shortlisted candidates. Standardizing these processes company-wide can result in more apples-to-apples comparisons between potential hires.

The tool: Many recruiting platforms, like Greenhouse, include customizable scorecards. With these scorecards, you can standardize the questions that are asked in interviews and the criteria that your team uses to grade candidates. Once scorecards are filled out, you can easily compare the results.

3. Involve multiple people at every stage

The tip: The best way to eliminate individual hiring biases is to take away the influence of the individual. This is especially important for small businesses with only one or two people making hiring decisions.

That means every shortlisted application should be viewed by at least two people and every candidate should be interviewed multiple times by multiple personnel. Lastly, nobody should have an overriding vote in the matter; every hiring decision should be a majority or consensus decision.

The tool: It can be difficult to stay on top of processes when more people are involved, so consider investing in a good applicant tracking system. That way you can set up hiring workflows that automatically notify team members when it’s their turn to interview a candidate or submit an assessment.

4. Let AI do the assessing for you

The tip: Our brains aren’t that great when it comes to objectively analyzing vast amounts of data. Computers, on the other hand, were built with this exact purpose in mind. If you find your diversity hiring goals are being thwarted by too much human influence, look to software to provide a more unbiased, data-driven approach.**

**Don’t rely entirely on software to make your hiring decisions because, guess what, data can be biased too! If you have a bad gut feeling about what your software is telling you, don’t ignore it.

The tool: More and more, recruiting systems are integrating big data recruiting capabilities that can pour through all of your historical recruiting and performance data and recommend the best candidate to hire based on your current top performers. Even better, these systems are becoming more and more affordable to appeal to the small business buyer.

If you’re unsure which recruiting tool is best for your needs and budget, fill out this quick questionnaire. We’ll send you a shortlist of products for free.

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