Employment Enterprises Blog

How Personal Bias Shapes Hiring Decisions

Posted by Ira S Wolfe on Jan 31, 2017 6:29:00 AM

better hiring decisions

No matter how much companies strive to develop great interviewing practices, perfection remains elusive. Management isn’t completely oblivious to this problem, of course, and continues to try (often at significant cost) to improve the process. Better interview questions, more structured formats, more training–all of these efforts can make interviewing a bit better. Ultimately, though, they still fall short.

The inherent vulnerabilities of using the interview as the cornerstone of any selection process are old news. Even a more refined type of interview, the structured behavioral interview, can yield only minimal improvement. Multiple variables–such as the manager’s interviewing skills, the candidate’s savvy, and the set of interview questions–can interfere with (and undermine) an interview’s effectiveness.

In spite of its flaws, the interview remains the one big constant in the hiring process. Managers are always on the lookout for ways to improve it, though. New research highlighted in a recent Wall Street Journal article suggests that personal bias may lie at the root of the problem. Bias influences managers’ decisions about employees’ futures with their organizations, particularly in determining who gets certain opportunities for advancement (or even, by extension, who gets hired):

Most employers currently rely on managers’ judgment or performance reviews to determine who gets on the high-potential track. . . . When managers are in charge of high-potential rosters, they tend to pick protégés who are like them.

Only about half of the candidates chosen through such a selection process actually work out in the long run. Even when a manager has extensive training and experience, his or her evaluation of someone else’s potential is tainted by some personal bias. Psychologists have coined a term for this inability to rate others fairly and objectively: the Idiosyncratic Rater Effect (IRE). Performance management specialist Marcus Buckingham recently brought IRE to the attention of the business world and explained that IRE tells us that my rating of you on a quality such as “potential” is driven not by who you are, but instead by my own idiosyncrasies–how I define “potential,” how much of it I think I have, how tough a rater I usually am. In short, when IRE is at play, a hiring manager injects his or her beliefs and idiosyncrasies into the interview process, thereby diminishing his or her ability to reliably and objectively evaluate employees’ skills, potential, and performance.

Buckingham’s research reveals that “61% of my rating of you is a reflection of me”–that is, a manager’s rating is based mostly on how much of a particular skill, value, or behavior he or she thinks the employee or candidate has. Managers who believe they are highly skilled tend to give mostly average ratings and at the same time devalue the importance of skills they themselves lack. But those beliefs may have nothing to do with what really drives success or what skills are most important. Because many people-performance decisions are driven by who the managers are and not by who the candidates are, managers can be poor evaluators of job fit and potential.

Companies have come to realize that the cost of hiring mistakes has skyrocketed and have begun to search more aggressively for solutions to this problem. To that end, many organizations now utilize pre-employment tests in hiring, because they add objectivity to what they know is a vulnerable talent-management process. The implementation of such assessments can reduce the influence of personal bias and add numerous data points to help employers make better hiring decisions.

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Ira S. Wolfe is a nationally recognized thought leader in talent management and an expert in pre-employment assessment testing, workforce trends, and social media. Wolfe is president of Success Performance Solutions (www.succcessperformancesolutions.com), a pre-employment and leadership testing firm he founded in 1996. He is the author of several books, including Geeks, Geezers, and Googlization; The Perfect Labor Storm 2.0; and Understanding Business Values and Motivators. He can be reached at iwolfe@super-solutions.com.

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