How to minimize biases during the interviewing process?

I love watching The Voice. It’s truly uplifting. 

The auditions are one of my favorite parts. I love that the coaches can’t see what’s happening on stage. The only thing they can focus on is the voice of the contestant and the way the audience is reacting to the performance. If you watch it long enough you learn that more often than not the coaches are blown away with the physical representation accompanying some of the voices. They say things like “I don’t understand how such a powerful voice comes out of your little body,” or “You sound so mature for a fifteen-year-old.”  

Similarly, as a Latina with an accent – yet with an “excellent command of English/English skills,” as some have referred to me – I didn’t understand how my interview style may differ from others’. 

About six years into my career, I had the opportunity to do an interview in my native language for the very first time. While I can’t remember the exact nature of the discussion I vividly remember I was less nervous and much more confident. Instead of focusing on not “messing up” my English, I was able to be in the moment; I was better able to share my experiences with the interviewer. Coincidently, this was also about the time I began to see stark differences between male and female interviewing styles.

Throughout the years, as a passionate advocate for equity, inclusion, and diversity I have been fortunate to engage with many Madison-area employers about how they can increase diversity in their workforce. Oftentimes, I ask about their recruitment and hiring practices. On one such occasion, an employer explained that their HR office collects and provides guidance to the hiring managers. However, once HR has gathered the pool of applicants, the hiring manager is responsible to schedule and conduct the interviews. Looking back, I can’t be sure if I said this out loud (but I am sure it was quite loud in my head!), “No wonder you can’t hire people of color!”

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Interviewing is probably one of the most susceptible activities to biases.  Here are just a few examples of potential biases. 

1. Bias for people who are quick thinkers

If interviewees don’t know the questions they will be asked in advance, individuals who can think well on their feet will be better positioned to impress. The question is do you want quick thinkers or thorough thinkers on your team? I supposed it depends on the job.  Have you considered showing the questions to the interviewee for those people who process information visually or who prefer to think long before giving you answers? As an interviewer, I do this. I am more interested in hearing the interviewees’ answers than seeing people anxious or nervous.  (One note on this: Just be sure to take the questions back when the interview is over.)  

If you see someone is slow to respond, give permission to take their time or offer the option to pass on the question to give them more time; you can always come back to the question when they are ready.

2. Socioeconomic biases

How people dress give managers the ability to classify candidates based on their own personal standards. This is why, early in my career, I invested in a suit. At that time, I couldn’t fathom anyone showing up to an interview in anything but a suit. Then, one day down the line, a friend of mine with a lot of pena (embarrassment) asked me if she could borrow my suit. It made me realize that some people don’t even have the means to buy a suit.

A recruiter once shared the following story with me:

“I had a hiring manager question the seriousness of a candidate once because of what the individual was wearing.  I asked him ‘what if that was [the] best that he had?.’ The hiring manager paused and agreed.” 

Since that interview, he would always remind us to watch for that bias. 

Later in his career, [the recruiter] shared how an employee admitted that he had accidentally worn a women’s suit to his interview (after having mistaken it for a men’s suit at the thrift store). He realized his mistake once he arrived home, but it was the best option he had. In the end, it didn’t matter because the employee was a great addition to the team.

3. Bias against accents 

(One of my personal favorites…) I hate phone interviews! Why? Because I know that understanding me over the phone is harder than understanding someone who is a native English speaker. I always get ultra anxious during phone interviews. I say just skip hiring manager phone interviews. They are not even a very effective way of sorting through people. Pick the top five applicants based on their resumes and move on to the next stage – in-person meetings. 

(Please note, however, that HR phone interviews can be valuable in confirming there are not immediate disqualifiers or misunderstandings about the position before moving to the next stage.) 

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Through our work at Step Up: Equity Matters, we have been thinking of ways to minimize interview biases and, in turn, what an inclusive interview process would look like. Here are a few tips:

1. DO NOT invite people of color to interview only to improve your performance against corporate diversity and inclusion goals! 

We (People of Color; POC) can tell when hiring managers do this in order to meet internal goals; just doing it for the sake of “giving people of color a chance” with no true intention of hiring a qualified candidate if they are a POC. Candidates can see when the hiring manager is not invested in fully assessing whether they can do the job in the organization.  

To improve the process, HR recruiters can consider: 

  • Blinding applications of identifiers (e.g., blanking out names, pronouns, addresses)
  • Creating a rating system for interview questions
  • Having a panel of people interview candidates, at one time
  • Inviting stakeholders (internal or external) to participate, if appropriate, for a neutral lens

2. Have a diverse panel interview each candidate, as opposed to having multiple, short one-on-one interviews. 

Interviewing in this way will help reduce the impact of biases if you ensure there is diversity on your panel. (The one negative thing to be cognizant of in this scenario, however, is groupthink.)

While this suggestion may be more about leaning out the interview process, it is still valuable and applicable as an effort to prevent bias as it allows more time for the hiring team to get better acquainted with the candidate. Making candidates introduce themselves three times – first, to the hiring manager, then to the HR person, then to some other person, etc. – does not allow for deep conversation, nor is it efficient. It is simply more effective for the purpose of reducing biases to have all three people in the room conduct a longer interview to allow for a more thorough assessment.

Whether you have only one interview or more, always have multiple interviewers with different perspectives in the room. This not only balances the assessment of the interviewee but also give the candidate an opportunity to ask questions of multiple people in the company. If the panel is both racial and ethnically diverse, it could help the employee see themselves working in your organization.

3. Be crystal clear on the purpose of questions, especially those that assess candidates’ ability to “fit in” within the organization. 

I am often confused why so many interviews focus on assessing fit within the organization. We are biased to be more comfortable with people that are similar to us; as a result, we would favorably assess candidates we identify with. The truth is, it’s not about fit, but rather clarity of the job specifications and demands. 

Explain to candidates why you are asking the questions you are.  For example, if they are situational questions, let them know you are looking specifically for 

  • The situation
  • The actions you took
  • The result of the actions

Also, by having a rating measurement for each question helps interviewers reduce subjectivity. (It will also help with the difficulty of remembering specific details after so many interviews.)

Be clear with candidates about the work environment and position demands.  That way, they can make an informed decision about whether they would be content in the work environment.  

Remember, retention begins during recruitment. It’s not about fit, rather clarity of the job specifications, demands and bonafide job requirements.

4. Values are important, but so is context. 

There are 

  • Company values
  • The vision of what a company aspires to be
  • The mission of a business 
  • And culture

Be clear with interviewees on what each of these is for your company. Also, be specific with candidates on what is expected of them in terms of contributions to the culture, vision, and mission of the company.  

5. Use consistent interview questions for all candidates. 

A good way to keep our biases in check is by planning and ensuring we ask the same questions of all candidates. This makes the interview process consistent and fair. 

Before even scheduling interviews, or even reviewing applications, make sure you have already vetted the interview questions. You do not want questions tailored to each of your applicants; you want to interview to fill the position. If in the interview the interviewee goes off script, write those additional questions down and then ask the same questions to the next candidates who come in. The goal is to have the same level of evidence from all candidates to perform the candidate evaluation.  

A compromise to this dynamic is to add a question at the end that is more open.  Such as “is there something you would like to add/share that we haven’t asked?”.

6. Check-in with yourself prior to the interview. 

What are you feeling? If you are (for whatever reason) feeling unhappy, frustrated, angry, etc., prior to the interview ask yourself how the way you feel impacts your ability to fairly assess the candidates. 

With this in mind, try not to schedule back-to-back interviews. Give yourself 15 minutes, at a minimum, in between to allow a breather.

7. Use an agenda/guide for a discussion of the candidates. 

A free, unguided dialogue evaluating the candidates can result in a bias-filled discussion. 

Check with your team prior to the evaluation to set parameters on how you will check each other on biases. 

Have a list of competencies you are looking for and work with your team to focus the discussion on how a candidate contributes to the organization.  

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Interviewing bias will remain one of the most challenging areas to assess and address.  However, this shouldn’t deter us from striving to minimize it and provide a level playing field for all applicants. 

For a step in the right direction, take the Step Up Pledge!

For more insight, practice, guides, and/or feedback, visit stepupforequity.com or email us at team@stepupforequity.com

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