The Competent Interviewer: Battling Biases in Candidate Appraisal

Job interviews – some of us love them, and some of us hate them. Nonetheless, they are still held as the gold standard of job applicant appraisal among recruiters. In fact, its approval is equally as strong on the other end; applicants consider interviews to be one of the fairest methods of job candidate appraisal as well. The interview is the champion of selection and recruitment – the all-round, multi-purpose Swiss Army knife that confidently seals the success or failure of the candidate.

However, most interviewers never receive formal training. And while training isn’t mandatory, there is a science behind an effective interview. Perhaps more importantly, this science also illustrates how our cognitive biases can corrupt our judgements and evaluations.

Below are three common cognitive biases with examples as to how they might materialise:

‘Fundamental Attribution Error’

The candidate is well into evidencing his strong ability to cope in a high-pressure environment. But the interviewer is finding it incredibly difficult to focus on what the candidate is saying; instead, she sees him fidgeting in his chair. “Maybe he’s feeling nervous?”, she thinks. “If he can’t handle the moderate stress of a job interview, how on earth could he handle the potentially high levels of stress of the job he’s applying for?”

Perhaps the candidate could have been indirectly leaking information about how poorly he’s built to handle stress… or perhaps his seat was just a little uncomfortable. Meanwhile, the interviewer was too busy extrapolating conclusions from his body language to listen to his actual evidence. This example demonstrates the fundamental attribution error, where we naturally tend to exaggerate the effect of internal factors and overlook situational factors in explaining the behaviour of others. In other words, we have a strong tendency to analyse people’s behaviour and make direct evaluations of their character or personality – but often, these are baseless speculations.

‘Halo Effect/Horn Effect’

Then, the question the candidate dreaded: “Could you tell me about your redundancy from your previous role?” The candidate answered candidly, but she knew it would harm her chances to land this position. Once it was out of the way however, the candidate began her recovery. She touted her skills, training, and other experience, before seemingly clinching it with an immaculate three-year projection of how her role would evolve. Unfortunately, the candidate wasn’t to know that the interviewer had made her mind up much earlier – the redundancy had tarnished the applicant’s chances.

First impressions matter. If things don’t get off to a good start, it’s difficult to recover. This demonstrates the horn effect, where someone's entire perception of another can be disproportionately influenced by a single negative trait. The opposite – the halo effect - is a common bias too, where one positive trait can override a barrage of negatives to inform a positive overall impression. What’s more, the halo/horn effect is often already primed to start in many instances where we already know a subject, or when we already hold positive or negative preconceived ideas about them.

‘Similar to me’ bias

The interviewer and candidate started off casually. “You’re a Prodigy fan as well?”, the interviewer asked. The candidate lit up. “A huge fan! Saw them at Glastonbury in 2009”, the candidate replied. “Gosh, I was there that year as well! I didn’t expect this in an interview”, the interviewer confessed. “But I must admit, you have great taste in music!” After a few more shared interests, the interviewer was convinced – even though the candidate may not have been the strongest choice in the pool.

The interviewer has been influenced by the similar-to-me bias, where people exceedingly favour individuals who are similar to themselves. The candidate that shared the same idiosyncratic interests as the interviewer was hired, even though some of the other candidates may have been better qualified to take on the role. Simply put, people with similar personalities tend to get along because they think, feel and behave in the same way, thereby impacting our impressions of job candidates.

So, next time an interview comes up, be aware of how these human cognitive biases may emerge and influence our judgement. After all, we want to select the best candidate for the job.


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