Finding the right person to fill a vacant position can often prove to be a complex and difficult process for hiring managers and recruiters, not least when it comes to the interview stage. All too often, the best candidate can be lost through what is known as ‘interviewer bias’.
Below we take a look at the meaning of interviewer bias, breaking down the different types of bias that can affect the quality and validity of interviews. We also look at ways in which the impact of interviewer bias can be reduced within an organisation’s selection process.
What is interviewer bias?
Interviewer bias is where the expectations or opinions of the person conducting an interview interfere with their objectivity, either negatively or positively, clouding their judgment of the person being interviewed. This is essentially where an interviewer evaluates a candidate, not only on their skills and competencies, but on unspoken and sometimes unconscious criteria.
For instance, an interviewer may consciously, or subconsciously, reject a candidate because the person didn’t have a firm handshake or make enough eye contact during interview. In contrast, the interviewer may feel a certain affinity with a candidate, perhaps because they share a similar point of view on a particular issue, although it’s not uncommon for candidates to respond to questions based solely on what they think the interviewer wants to hear.
The interviewer’s objectivity can also be distorted, not just because of how someone behaves during the interview, but because of preconceived ideas formed about a candidate prior to the interview or even based on what the person looks like. Most interviewers would consider themselves fair and impartial, with no hidden stereotypes or prejudices, but this is rarely the case. Unconscious bias happens outside of an individual’s awareness and can influence what someone thinks or how they perceive others without them even realising it.
For example, the interviewer may make automatic associations or assumptions — some good, some bad — about information gleaned from a candidate’s job application, such as their social background or where that person was educated. The interviewer may also have unintended preferences or prejudices towards a candidate based on their appearance. This could include things like a person’s age, gender, ethnicity, their overall attractiveness or any visible disability.
In many cases, the hiring manager or recruiter will make snap judgments about a candidate, automatically responding to them, in either positive or negative ways, before even interacting with that individual or having the opportunity to fairly assess their suitability for a role. This unconscious bias, although unintended, can often and easily distort the interview outcome.
Examples of interviewer bias
To be able to break down interviewer bias and find ways to reduce its impact, it’s important to define and fully understand the different types of bias that can interfere with the selection process. Interviewer bias can reveal itself in many different ways, including:
Affinity bias: this is one of the most common forms of interviewer bias, where everyone has deep subconscious preferences for people with similar characteristics or traits. Often referred to as ‘like me’ bias, affinity bias is where the interviewer favours a particular candidate, perhaps because they have a similar background or lots of things in common with that person. At the same time, this form of bias means the interviewer may be less likely to develop a positive rapport with a candidate who is in some way to different to them.
Confirmation bias: this is where the interviewer only listens to information or asks questions designed to elicit responses, that confirm and support their preconceived notions about a particular candidate. This means that the focus of the interview will be limited to any preconceptions about that person, or a snap judgment based on first impressions, rather than adequately exploring a candidates’ suitability for the job role.
Anchor bias: this is where the interviewer’s mind anchors to the first piece of information that they discover about a person, typically something set out in the candidate’s job application or CV, for example, where an interviewer reads that a candidate attended Oxbridge. In some cases, the interviewer may have high expectations for a potentially strong candidate on paper, such that negative indicators are missed during the interview, resulting in a false positive evaluation. In contrast, the weaker candidate on paper may perform better during the interview, but still, burden the prejudice of any initial negative assessment.
Stereotyping: this is a generalised belief about a particular group of people, where the interviewer judges a candidate based on their social category, rather than their individual skills and competencies. For example, if female candidates are assumed to have childcare commitments, an interviewer may look more to male candidates to take up roles with long working hours or high travel requirements. Equally, the interviewer may reject a male candidate for a receptionist job because, in their view, women are more approachable, even if that candidate performed better in the interview than any female counterpart.
Halo or horn effect: this refers to when one single characteristic creates an overly-weighted negative or positive impression of a candidate. For example, if a candidate delivers a strong presentation as part of their interview assessment, the interviewer may wrongly assume that this person is good at everything. This is known as the halo effect. In contrast, the horn effect is where a negative aspect about someone, such as making grammatical errors in their cover letter, results in the interviewer wrongly assuming they would make mistakes in every aspect of their job, even if being good at grammar is irrelevant to the role.
Generalisation bias: this occurs when the interviewer automatically assumes that the mannerisms displayed by a candidate in an interview are part of their everyday behaviour. This is where first impressions can make a lasting impression. For example, candidates who are nervous in an interview may be generalised as having an all-round nervous disposition, where interviewers often lean towards candidates who are confident and outgoing during an interview, regardless of whether or not good interpersonal skills are critical to a role.
What issues can interviewer bias create?
Interviewer bias can have all sorts of negative consequences for an organisation, including bad hiring decisions followed by high turnover rates. This kind of unconscious bias within an organisation’s selection process can also result in a lack of diversity in the workplace, a failure to provide equal employment opportunities and a seriously damaged employer-brand.
In some cases, interviewer bias can even expose the employer to claims for unlawful discrimination. UK law prohibits employers from discriminating against job applicants by reason of age, sex, race, disability and other protected characteristics. If selection decisions following interview are based on prejudice and stereotypes, and not based on factors relating to the job description or person specification, this could lead to unlawful discrimination.
The interview stage is often when it is easiest to make judgements about an applicant based on subjective and sometimes wholly irrelevant assumptions. Where the interviewer is unaware of their own unconscious biases, they may ask potentially discriminatory questions that relate to a protected characteristic. For example, where a female candidate is asked if she plans to have children and is then rejected in favour of someone of the opposite sex, even though the male candidate is less qualified, this could expose the employer to a claim for sex discrimination.
An interviewer may even inadvertently make a number of discriminatory remarks or jokes during interview that could amount to harassment. Harassment is where a person, including a job applicant, is subjected to unwanted conduct related to a protected characteristic that has either the purpose or effect of violating that individual’s dignity or creating an offensive environment for them. In most cases, this will be unintentional, but where the interviewer’s comments have a harmful effect, this will still be classed as harassment.
How to reduce interviewer bias
Often hiring managers or recruiters will not be aware of behaving in a discriminatory or biased way, or how any interviewer bias is affecting their decision-making. Still, this doesn’t lessen the potential workplace imbalance and legal risks that interviewer bias can cause.
The main purpose of a job interview is to determine a candidate’s suitability for a role and the likelihood that they will perform well in this position. By judging candidates for their skills and competencies, rather than on expectations or opinions, this will leave less scope for mismatch and reduce the risk of going through the entire recruitment cycle again.
When hiring managers and recruiters are able to effectively interview without biases, this will not only create the best possible chance of selecting the right candidate for the job first time round, but help to create a diverse and inclusive workplace with a positive employer brand.
Below we set out various tactics that can be used to reduce the potential for discrimination and bias, ensuring that the selection process is fair and objective at all times:
Provide interview training: by providing interviewers with training on equality and diversity, including how to avoid their own unconscious biases, this can help to minimise the impact of hidden intolerances and prejudices. Training should include things like:
- recognising ways in which stereotypical assumptions can be made about applicants
- avoiding irrelevant interview questions that relate to protected characteristics, for example, questions about childcare arrangements, or plans to get married or to have children
- keeping an impartial and open mind, not allowing first impressions on things like looks or body language to affect the evaluation of a candidate
- how to identify and avoid cultural noise, ie; where a candidate is trying to impress the interviewer rather than provide an honest response.
Use an interview guide: this is a guidance document for all individuals with interviewing responsibilities in an organisation to approach interviewing in a consistent and compliant manner. It provides a structure for the way in which interviews should be conducted and should help the interviewer to know what to ask and in what order, and provide the same candidate experience for all applicants. The content of the guide will differ depending on, amongst other things, the role the business is hiring for, the interview method being used and any specific organisational requirements. However, standardised questions in a structured format will help to ensure an equal assessment for everyone.
Use an assessment matrix: by conducting interviews strictly on the basis of the application form, job description, person specification and the agreed weight given to each criterion, an interviewer will ensure that all applicants are assessed objectively, and solely on their ability to do the job satisfactorily. This will help to ensure that every hiring decision is based on reason and evidence, rather than opinion and potential discriminatory bias.
Keep written records: by keeping clear records setting out the criterion considered and the reason for any hiring decisions, this will provide written justification for any decision-making and the process by which a decision was reached. Any failure to keep a written record of the recruitment process will mean the employer will be less able to respond effectively to any complaints of discrimination. The absence of any records could even result in a tribunal drawing an adverse inference against the employer of unlawful conduct.
DavidsonMorris’ HR consultants and employment law specialists work with employers to support with issues relating to inclusion, diversity and recruitment, and addressing specific issues such as interviewer bias to help manage legal risks while fostering positive working cultures and relations. For expert advice, contact us.
Interviewer Bias FAQs
What is meant by interviewer bias?
Interviewer bias is when the interviewer judges a candidate not only on their skills and competencies, but on unspoken and sometimes, unconscious criteria, where the expectations or opinions of the interviewer interfere with their objectivity.
What is an example of interviewer bias?
Affinity bias is one of the most common forms of interviewer bias, where the interviewer favours a particular candidate because they have similar characteristics or traits to them, for example, they’re from a similar background or have lots in common.
What type of bias is interviewer bias?
There are numerous types of interviewer bias, some conscious, some unconscious. These includes affinity bias, confirmation bias, anchor bias, stereotyping, the halo or horn effect, and generalisation bias to name but a few.
How do you solve interview bias?
You can reduce interview bias in the hiring process by adopting various different tactics, such as structuring interviews and using standardised questions, as well as training interviewers to recognise and avoid any hidden intolerances and prejudices.
Last updated: 16 January 2023