Over the past couple of years, I’ve interviewed over 100 candidates and have seen hundreds more resumes. The thing I have come to learn by speaking to each and everyone of these humans is that I am biased. Very biased. I see that she once worked at an investment bank and I instantly start stereotyping. I notice that he went to my alma mater and I immediately brand him as a gentleman and a scholar. I’ve noticed this happening so often that I instantly start calling out my own bias and try to combat it, but is that the right strategy?

Recognizing Bias

There is an interesting distinction between purposely trying to oppose your biases and exercising judgment or intuition. Buster Benson says this about cognitive bias:

Every cognitive bias is there for a reason — primarily to save our brains time or energy. If you look at them by the problem they’re trying to solve, it becomes a lot easier to understand why they exist, how they’re useful, and the trade-offs (and resulting mental errors) that they introduce.

Spending a few minutes with a candidate can fire off cognitive biases like the Semmelweis reflex, anecdotal fallacy, and out-group homogeneity. Somewhere in there is a balance of battling the irrational biases and leaning on the rational. Hiring people is hard and hiring the wrong person is expensive, so how do we manage our cognitive biases to hire great people that might not be like us, or might be rejected because your stomach hurts, or might have been hired because the candidate looks like your Aunt Susan?

Beware of “Culture Fit”

I often hear companies reject candidates or fire employees because they weren’t the right “culture fit”. This can mean a lot of things, but in the interview process, be sure your “culture” interview is aligned to a set of defined values and not to how great a conversation you had with the candidate about Homestar Runner. I often hear of start-ups doing the “lunch test” or the “beer test”.1 I’ll save the discussion of alcohol in the tech industry for another day, but beware of letting your cognitive biases go wild based on what the person orders for lunch or how many times they wipe their face over the course of a meal. Having been in both situations, I suggest against it.

Addresses: halo effect, projection bias, Social comparison bias

Question Banks

Part of a great interviewing experience is not having to answer the same question 5 times. At $current_company a candidate is assigned a panel where each member of the panel has a unique slot, for example, technical proficiency or teamwork, with a pre-defined set of questions. Each member of that panel has been uniquely trained for that slot so that they have famliliarity with a set of pre-defined questions and a baseline to draw from from previous candidates. In most slots, having seen the person’s actual resume is not necessary.2

Addresses: framing effect,moral credential effect

Blindly Record Feedback in a Short Amount of Time

This goes without saying, but talking to the rest of a panel (or sometimes even judging their body language when walking in after them) can have a significant affect on how you view the candidate. Panel feedback should happen independently and ideally immediately after the interview while it’s fresh on the brain.

Addresses: fading affect bias, misattribution of memory

Diverse Interview Panels

As you gather feedback from your interview panel you are now facing a deluge of cognitive bias. To the degree that you can diversify your interview panel, you will likely find yourself with a higher signal-to-noise ratio on whether or not the candidate is a good fit for your company. Look for diversification across all aspects, not just gender or race, but also experience, and if it makes any sort of sense, I’ve seen diversified roles such as PMs interviewing engineers bring in objective results.

Addresses: IKEA effect, peak-end rule

You will never eliminate bias, but reducing the harmful ones, calling yourself out on them and knowing how to use them will go along way in making healthy hiring decisions.

  1. How well you can socialize and converse about points of shared culture between individuals does not give you a sense of someone’s professional ability. At the same time, there’s balancing how much personality conflict might come from a mismatched communication style and other social signals that come out of dining with someone. It’s tricky. Just avoid it.

  2. In an interview on Technical Architecture knowing a candidate’s years of experience might help in having the right questions and a useful discussion, but this could also result in an expectation bias. The bias is there, just call it out. Be cool.