How to Fight Confirmation Bias in Your Hiring Process

We’ve all heard the saying, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” And while that’s true to some extent, many hiring managers take the principle to an unnecessary extreme, claiming they know everything they need to know about a candidate within the first five seconds after they walk into the door.

But the only way it could possibly work is if the hiring manager forms his or her own preconceptions about the candidate prior to the interview. And if someone on your staff is taking mental shortcuts in their candidate evaluations, your organization is likely missing out on some of the best hires on the market.

Here’s how confirmation bias can creep into your hiring process – and how to fight it.

Confirmation confusion
There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to confirm ideas we suspect to be true. After all, that’s how science works: by forming a hypothesis and then testing it. But problems start to creep in when we allow our favorite hypothesis to shape our view of the results.

Say, for example, that your hiring manager believes any candidate who went to a certain university is automatically well-suited for your company culture. That might be true – but it’s most likely not; and that belief is going to exclude a whole lot of qualified candidates before they even get a chance at an interview.

This is an extreme example, of course. But the same principle subtly influences many of us, whether we’re aware of it or not. Any time a decision maker assigns extra weight to evidence that confirms their preconceptions, while discounting evidence that goes against those assumptions, they’re likely to miss out on some great opportunities.

The pitfalls of bias
The most obvious downside of confirmation bias is that it’s unfair to candidates. For example, if the hiring manager believes that confident candidates are always best for the job, the client with the strongest eye contact and firmest handshake will be the most likely to “qualify” on this basis – never mind the stellar portfolios presented by many of the other applicants.

Confirmation bias can also influence hiring decisions in less obvious ways. If a certain hiring manager believes that (for example) an Oracle database certification is more meaningful than one from IBM, then any candidate who’s failed to obtain that specific certification will be less likely to make a positive impression, regardless of their actual expertise in that area.

Preconceptions like these can seriously limit your organization’s talent pool. Even worse, these kinds of biases can disqualify candidates who’d bring innovative perspectives to departments that desperately need new thinking. In short, confirmation bias may be eliminating the very candidates your organization needs most.

How to fight it
It’s not always easy to see confirmation bias, especially in oneself. One helpful technique can be to simply write down a short list of factors you believe are most important in a candidate – and have your hiring manager do the same. Check one another’s lists carefully, keeping an eye out for any qualifiers that aren’t particularly relevant to the job and its skillset. And make a conscious, verbal commitment to set those biases aside during the hiring process.

In the interview itself, make sure you give the candidate time to make a case for the benefits they can bring your business. Set aside the outdated belief that you can “size up any candidate in five seconds,” and be aware that first impressions may not always be accurate. Some candidates may simply be nervous to meet you, or may not be sure where to begin. Give them the benefit of the doubt, and focus on their portfolio rather than on their handshake.

The more you’re able to recognize confirmation bias at work in yourself and your hiring team, and take steps to counteract it, the more likely you’ll be to hire candidates who actually fit your business’s needs. Invest a bit of time in rooting out this bias, and your new clarity will pay dividends for years to come.