When humans engage in any type of social interaction, it’s easy to inject unconscious biases into the equation. And since an interview is most definitely a social exchange, it paves the way for an interviewer bias to negatively influence the outcome of a candidate’s evaluation. Often times, these interview biases focus on candidate details unrelated to skills or ability.

In fact, one study by Schmidt and Hunter revealed that interviews only predict about 14% of employee performance. Since interviews are the most relied-upon form of candidate assessment, we can all agree that’s a frighteningly low number.

So, why is this happening?


How Unconscious Bias Disrupts the Hiring Process

Humans rely on something called heuristics to assist in quick decision-making, which is just a technical term for unconscious bias. At its core, heuristics are mental shortcuts. They involve concentrating on one aspect of a complex problem while ignoring others.

Whether you’ve been a recruiter or hiring manager for twenty minutes or twenty years, you have a responsibility to be conscious of these biases. You make judgment calls that determine the future of hundreds of candidates, so it’s important to understand the most common interview biases and how to avoid them.


5 Common Cognitive Interviewer Biases

1. Halo/Horn Bias

This interviewer bias allows either a positive (halo) or negative (horn) characteristic overshadow other behaviors, actions, beliefs, or attributes, he or she has a case of halo/horn bias. Globalizing one positive or negative characteristic can result in an artificially positive or negative evaluation of a candidate regardless of actual skills and abilities.

Halo/Horn Example

Ken applies for a marketing copywriter position, and the only writing samples he has are academic essays. Jenna, a hiring manager, assumes that since he’s a great academic writer (halo), he must be a great copywriter. Clouded by the halo, Jenna doesn’t request relevant marketing copywriting samples—despite these styles of writing being vastly different from one another.

2. Affective Heuristic Bias

Affective heuristic bias occurs when judgment is influenced by a particular superficial trait, such as race, gender, clothes, background, names, and even if the individual is perceived as attractive or not.

Humans used to rely on their ability to read facial expressions, body language, and overall appearances to survive. While an interview is hardly a threat to your life, the effective heuristic bias has been deeply ingrained in us since the beginning of our existence.

Affective Heuristic Bias Example

When Texas Sen. Ted Cruz started to rise in the polls during last year’s election, he was the target of odd widespread chatter—not because of his views, but because of his face. Some people described it as creepy, odd, strange, distracting, and villainous. His atypical face was said to be so distracting that it was hard to listen to what he had to say.

Turns out, humans actually find comfort in the typical Duchenne smile—a smile where the eyes narrow and the mouth turns upward. Cruz’s smile turns into a straight line, or it curves downward in an anti-Duchenne smile. Our brains instinctively interpret his expression as one of insincere intent.

However, not every aspect of the effective heuristic bias is rooted in science. Hiring decisions can be influenced by something as insignificant as a candidate’s name. Take this real-life example:

“I’ll never hire someone whose name is X. I had a boyfriend with that name and I just cannot hire someone with that name.”


3. Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias is the tendency to explicitly favor, search for, and remember information, personalities, or traits that confirms a (usually shallow) belief/hypothesis we already have. As a result, interviewers ignore or forget details that conflict with said belief.

Confirmation Bias Example

Henry believes men—not women—are more suitable for engineering positions. If Henry interviews 2 men and 2 women, he’ll look for reasons that confirm his belief that those 2 women are unqualified.

4. Anchoring bias

In this interviewer bias example, an interviewer is plagued by the anchoring bias when she relies too heavily on the very first piece of information either offered by a candidate or about a role without evaluating other factors.

Anchoring Bias Example

“Lena was such a great marketing director; we need to find another Lena if we want to stay on track.”

In this scenario, Lena is the anchor. Every applicant moving forward will be compared to Lena’s skills, abilities, and accomplishments.

5. Nonverbal bias

Nonverbal bias is an evaluation based on a candidate’s body language or nonverbal cues. For example, a hiring manager’s perception of a candidate may be distorted based on his or her handshake.


6 Ways to Avoid Interviewer Bias

Humans will continue to unconsciously employ heuristics to make decisions until the end of time—it’s just hardwired into our brains. However, you can minimize the occurrence of interview biases by adopting the following techniques.

1. Benchmark the job; not the people

Establish a consistent definition of the job (and don’t just make one up). Conduct industry-specific research to narrow down key metrics like salary, seniority, and responsibilities.

2. Use a scientific employee assessment process

We know there’s a fear of AI taking over the recruiting and hiring industry, but sometimes the most objective evaluations can only be performed by things who only know how to be objective. Digital aptitude, skills, and personality tests decrease the likelihood of interviewer bias in decision-making.

For example, an interviewer could ask a totally innocent personality question but pay more attention to the way the candidate answered versus the actual answer. When you decide on an assessment process, make sure it’s been approved for hiring.

3. Ask every candidate the same targeted questions

Studies consistently show that unstructured interviews are the worst predictors of on-the-job performance (despite them being the favorable style among recruiters and hiring managers). So, ask pointed questions. These questions should be based on job-related competencies. The possibility for subjectivity is minimized when you have structured criteria to keep you on track.

4. Don’t be the only interviewer

Before making any decisions, bring in at least 3 other pairs of eyes and ears. Those individuals might ask questions we might not consider because we’re clouded with distorted judgment.

5. Do a phone screen first

Phone screens help minimize the influence of affective heuristic bias as well as nonverbal bias. When you can’t see a candidate, you don’t have as many irrelevant physical features to assess.

6. Don’t rely on memory

Always take notes; never rely on your memory of an interview. Our memory is a hugely unreliable support system for decision-making, specifically because:

•Memories are interpretations of the past; not hard-facts
•Memories are influenced by our current knowledge and expectations

If we conduct an interview with biased expectations and don’t take notes, our recall will likely support whatever biased we started with.