The 3 Biggest Unconscious Biases in Hiring Decisions May Surprise You

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By Shana Lebowitz

In an ideal world, an interviewer would evaluate job candidates based exclusively on their professional qualifications.

In reality, so many other factors come into play — like what part of the world the candidate is from or what their favorite sports teams are. For the most part, these biases are unconscious, so we aren't always aware that they could be influencing our choices.

We spoke with Madan Pillutla, Ph.D., a professor of organizational behavior at London Business School who studies trust and fairness in interpersonal interactions, about the three biggest unconscious biases in hiring decisions.1. We gravitate toward people who are similar to us.
According to the similarity-attraction hypothesis, we tend to like people who are similar to us — whether that means they come from the same state or sport the same haircut.

One way to explain that phenomenon, Pillutla said, is that people with a decent level of self-esteem are satisfied with their personalities. So when they see their qualities reflected in someone else, they tend to like that person, too.

Another potential explanation, which is slightly harder to test, is that people have evolved to like people who look and act the way they do. At one point in human history, it was important to trust only people in your small social group. Even though that behavior is no longer necessary today, we can still act as though it is.

The problem, Pillutla said, is that "if I keep hiring people like myself, very soon I'll have an organization of people who think similarly, who act similarly." Yet research suggests that diversity of backgrounds and perspectives is important to a company's success.

2. We base our decisions on stereotypes about people's competencies.
One common example of stereotyping, Pillutla said, is that Americans tend to assume Indians who come to the US are skilled at math. So American hiring managers might be inclined to select an Indian candidate for a math-heavy position because they think he or she will excel in that role — even though it's possible another candidate could be more skilled in that area.

But while it's possible to unlearn ethnic biases, "stereotypes about gender tend to be a little deeper" and harder to reverse, Pillutla said.

For example, one recent study found that people were more likely to hire a male candidate over a female candidate to perform a mathematical task, even when they learned that the candidates would perform equally well.

3. We're wary of anyone who we perceive as a threat to our status in the organization.
Pillutla and his colleagues recently published some of the first research on this topic.

In an organization with a highly competitive culture, managers might be disinclined to bring on someone more competent than they are, especially if they feel insecure in their role.

"Even if people are well-meaning and well-intentioned, it's very difficult to act against your own self interest" by hiring someone who could outperform you, Pillutla said.

In terms of countering these three biases, Pillutla pointed to recent changes in the way musicians audition for spots in an orchestra. Now, many orchestras hold "blind auditions," in which the musicians play behind a screen, so they don't know what the candidates look like. As a result, they've accepted more women.

In fact, some companies in other fields have already adopted similar hiring strategies.

Alternatively, Pillutla said, "It's not entirely outside of the realm of possibility that for a lot of jobs we don't even need to interview people." Instead, employers could have candidates come in and work for a day, so that they could see how those candidates would really perform. This is potentially a more objective strategy that could make it harder to let our biases influence our decisions.

"It's a little out there, but I do think it would be a good thing," he said.
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