Behavioural science and it's impact on recruitment - Part 2

Behavioural science interview
Tom Stroud
Reading time:
8 mins
June 23, 2023

In this, the second article in our series on the impact of behavioural science on recruitment, I explore the assessment, section and decision-making process. We look at potential biases, how they can affect assessors and hiring managers, and how we can reduce their impact.

In the first article, we looked at how behavioural science can improve the way we attract and engage with potential job applicants. Hopefully, now you'll be getting a good number of suitable candidates applying; so what do you now need to consider when reviewing CVs or application forms and interviewing candidates?

The challenge lies in identifying the most qualified candidates efficiently and objectively. Behavioural science can offer valuable insights and strategies to enhance your review process, ensuring a more accurate and unbiased evaluation of applicants. Let's delve into some important things to consider at this critical stage of your recruitment process.

Be aware of your biases

We all suffer from a wide range of biases, most of which we do not even realise or acknowledge we have until they are pointed out to us. Here are some you need to be aware of and what you can do to reduce their impact on your role as an assessor or hiring manager.

Affinity bias

Research consistently supports the notion that people naturally tend to hire individuals who resemble themselves. This preference for similarity extends beyond primary demographic factors and extends to shared backgrounds, leisure activities, experiences, and even presentation styles. Rivera's (2012) findings highlight this phenomenon, demonstrating that recruiters often gravitate towards candidates who mirror their own characteristics. 

This preference for similarity can profoundly impact the recruitment process, leading to overlooking more critical factors such as skills and experience. In organisations that strongly emphasise hiring individuals similar to existing employees, diversity and inclusion suffer, limiting the potential for fresh perspectives, innovative ideas, and overall growth. 

To counteract this bias, HR professionals and hiring managers must proactively challenge their own preferences and actively seek out candidates with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. 

Gender bias 

Gender bias continues to be a prevalent issue within recruitment processes. Managers, irrespective of their gender, continue to favour male candidates over equally qualified or suitable females (Koch et al, 2015). 

Despite progress towards gender equality in the workplace, unconscious biases and stereotypes often influence decision-making. Studies have shown that gender bias can manifest in various ways throughout the recruitment process, from evaluating CVs to reviewing assessment results and interviews. 

What can be done to reduce gender bias and encourage objective decision-making? In one study, reviewing more than one CV at a time and comparing them side by side was shown to decrease gender bias and increase the likelihood that participants assessed candidates on their potential rather than gender stereotypes (Bohnet et al, 2012). 

Using anonymised CVs or removing any information likely to indicate an applicant's gender from an application form has also been shown to reduce gender bias. 

Racial bias

Despite widespread efforts to promote diversity and inclusion, racial bias remains a significant concern and can subtly influence decision-making processes. Studies have shown that individuals from racial minority groups often face discrimination and prejudice when seeking employment opportunities. 

Research from the US shows that identical CVs get more callbacks when the name on the CV is traditionally white (for example, Emily or Greg) compared with traditionally black (for example, Lakisha or Jamal) (Bertrand & Mullainathan, 2003).

To address racial bias, organisations must implement strategies that foster equal opportunities and create inclusive environments. This includes promoting diverse candidate pools, utilising blind recruitment techniques, providing bias training to hiring teams, and establishing clear criteria for evaluating candidates based on merit rather than preconceived notions. 

Anchoring bias

Anchoring bias is a cognitive bias that influences decision-making by relying heavily on the first piece of information encountered, known as the anchor, when evaluating subsequent information or making judgments. This bias occurs when individuals give disproportionate weight to the initial information, often leading to an insufficient adjustment from that starting point. 

In recruitment, anchoring bias can manifest during interviews or when reviewing candidates' qualifications. For example, suppose an interviewer is provided with a candidate's lower salary history as the anchor. In that case, they may anchor their evaluation of the candidate's worth based on that initial information, potentially undervaluing the candidate's true capabilities and qualifications. 

Similarly, suppose a candidate's application is reviewed after reading a highly impressive CV. In that case, the subsequent candidates may be unfairly judged against that initial high standard, resulting in the anchoring bias influencing the assessment. 

Halo/horn effect

The Halo effect occurs when an individual's overall positive impression of a candidate influences their perception of specific qualities or attributes related to that candidate. For instance, if an applicant is perceived as attractive or confident, the halo effect may lead the assessor to assume they possess other favourable qualities, even without sufficient evidence. 

Conversely, the Horn effect works in the opposite direction, where a single negative trait or characteristic leads to an overall negative evaluation of the candidate, overshadowing their other positive attributes. 

Both biases can cloud judgment and lead to inaccurate assessments, relying on general impressions rather than a thorough evaluation of the candidate's qualifications and abilities. 

Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias occurs when individuals seek, interpret, or remember information in a way that confirms their pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses while ignoring or discounting conflicting evidence. In the context of recruitment, hiring managers or assessors may inadvertently favour information that aligns with their initial impressions or expectations of a candidate while disregarding evidence that contradicts those beliefs. 

This bias can lead to a distorted evaluation of candidates, as assessors may selectively focus on information that confirms their preconceived notions, potentially overlooking necessary qualifications or skills. 

Behavioural science in interviews

The perception of interviews and their effectiveness as a selection tool has evolved over time. Critics argue that job interviews have limited predictive power due to the influence of irrelevant information on assessors (Pingitore et al., 1994), lack of incremental validity beyond cognitive tests (Campion et al., 1988), and the tendency of assessors to feel confident about their decisions even when interview content lacks coherence. 

However, research suggests that the weaknesses of interviews can be attributed more to the specific type of interview used, such as structured versus unstructured interviews, rather than the broader concept of interviews (Judge et al., 2000). 

Despite ongoing debates on the evidence, interviews remain popular due to their convenience and ability to assess skills relevant to the job, such as communication and listening. Therefore, how can we address these weaknesses and make interviews as robust and effective as possible?

From a behavioural perspective, it is not surprising to encounter problems associated with interviews. In addition to the biases mentioned above, one contributing factor is the high cognitive load involved in making judgments in such settings. Interviewers may make hasty decisions without fully considering all available data. In fact, some studies suggest that the actual decision may be made within the first few minutes of an interview (Ambady & Rosenthal, 1992; Barrick et al., 2012). 

Recent research indicates that decision time in an interview is influenced by contextual factors, such as whether the interview is structured (taking longer to make decisions) or the order of applicants being considered. Assessors may also succumb to confirmation bias, selectively hearing or remembering information that aligns with their pre-existing beliefs or opinions. This suggests that the order in which applicants are interviewed can significantly impact their chances of being hired. Additionally, candidates may differ in their expressed attitudes and behaviours due to social desirability bias, where individuals respond in a manner they believe is socially desirable rather than reflecting their true feelings (Snyder, 1987). 

Candidates may conform to perceived social norms or provide answers they believe to be the "right" response. Such tactics can effectively influence interview ratings, especially in unstructured interviews, but may not correlate strongly with actual job performance (Barrick et al., 2009).

To mitigate these challenges, recruiters can enhance the value of interviews by incorporating evidence-based practices. Structured interviews are generally found to predict job performance better than unstructured interviews (Macan, 2009). This is attributed to the potential biases that arise when interviewers rely on spontaneous questions during the interview process. Structured interviews, on the other hand, can reduce bias. For instance, studies have shown that bias against pregnant women decreased when interview questions were structured in a laboratory setting (Bragger et al., 2002). Employing a robust design, even within interviews, becomes essential when aiming to identify the most suitable candidates for a job.

Despite the identified problems with interviews, they continue to be used as part of the recruitment process for most employers. Here are some tips for leveraging behavioural science during interviews to improve their effectiveness and reduce the impact of bias:

Structured interview questions

By using a standardised set of questions and evaluation criteria, structured interviews ensure that all candidates are assessed on the same factors, minimising the impact of individual biases and subjective judgments. This consistency allows for more accurate and reliable candidate comparisons, leading to more informed and objective hiring decisions. 

Secondly, structured interviews enhance fairness and equality. All candidates have equal opportunities to showcase their skills and qualifications since they are asked the same set of questions. This reduces the potential for discrimination and ensures that candidates are evaluated solely based on their job-related competencies. Additionally, structured interviews contribute to a more efficient and organised evaluation process. Using predetermined questions reduces the cognitive load on interviewers, enabling them to focus on gathering specific information relevant to the job requirements. 

Moreover, structured interviews facilitate the ability to compare candidates' responses against predefined criteria, streamlining the decision-making process. 

Rating scales

Rating scales provide a standardised and consistent method for evaluating candidates. Using predefined criteria and a consistent scale ensures that all candidates are assessed based on the same set of factors, promoting fairness and objectivity. This helps to minimise subjective judgments and biases that may arise when relying solely on qualitative assessments. 

Secondly, rating scales enable easier comparison and benchmarking of candidates. A transparent numerical or categorical rating system makes comparing and ranking candidates based on their performance against specific criteria easier. 

Additionally, rating scales promote transparency and accountability in the recruitment process. Assessors must justify their ratings, providing a clear rationale for the evaluation and ensuring that decisions are based on objective criteria rather than personal opinions. This transparency enhances the overall credibility and integrity of the selection process. Lastly, rating scales offer the opportunity for data analysis and evaluation. Aggregated ratings can be analysed to identify trends, patterns, and strengths or weaknesses among candidates, helping identify the most suitable candidate for the role.

Panel interviews

Having multiple interviewers on a panel allows for a broader range of perspectives and reduces the impact of individual biases. Each interviewer brings their unique expertise and background, providing a more comprehensive evaluation of candidates. This should lead to a more balanced and fair assessment, ensuring that decisions are not based solely on one person's opinion.

Since multiple assessors are involved, there is a collective responsibility for the outcome, promoting accountability and reducing the likelihood of biased or arbitrary decisions. 

Removing decision-making from interviewers

Removing the final hiring decision from the interviewers offers several advantages. Firstly, it helps mitigate the potential biases and conflicts of interest that interviewers may have described previously. If interviewers are not directly responsible for final hiring decisions, they can focus solely on evaluating candidates against the agreed criteria. They are under reduced cognitive load as they don't need to consider other factors, such as how they would fit in with their team. In essence, they are simply observing and collecting evidence. 

Secondly, separating the hiring decision from the interviewers allows for a more comprehensive and inclusive evaluation process. Other stakeholders, such as HR professionals or hiring managers, can bring different perspectives and insights to the decision-making process. Additionally, involving a broader range of perspectives can help identify unconscious biases and ensure that diverse viewpoints are considered. Lastly, removing the hiring decision from the interviewers enhances transparency and accountability. When an independent decision-making body or committee makes decisions, the rationale and criteria used in the decision-making process can be more clearly articulated and documented. This promotes transparency and helps build trust among candidates and within the organisation. 

In summary

Leveraging behavioural science in the recruitment assessment and selection process is crucial for mitigating biases and optimising decision-making. This article has highlighted various biases that can influence assessors and hiring managers, ranging from affinity bias to confirmation bias. 

Hopefully, now you can also improve fairness, objectivity, and transparency in your recruitment processes by being aware of these biases and implementing evidence-based strategies, such as structured interviews, rating scales, panel interviews, and removing the hiring decision from interviewers. By incorporating behavioural science principles, you can identify the most qualified candidates more accurately, fostering diversity and inclusivity and ultimately making more informed hiring decisions.

In the next post, I'll explore how behavioural science can be used to improve candidate experience. In the meantime, if you'd like to discuss how Tazio can help improve your recruitment process, get in touch today.

Tom Stroud

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