Perception Bias in Recruitment and How to Reduce it

Last week I was teaching undergraduate students in Edinburgh Napier University about perception theory and the implication stereotyping has on recruitment. Contrary to the popular wisdom of polite society, stereotyping is actually a perfectly normal psychological process. However this is not to say it does not cloud our judgement, particularly when it comes to making recruitment decisions.

As humans we constantly absorb huge amounts of information about the world around us. The sheer amount of data we absorb is almost overwhelming so processes like stereotyping help us filter information. We use existing information already stored in our brains to put people into boxes based on extremely quick observations. This enables us to make decisions quicker and to determine things like whether a stranger should be considered friend or foe. The ability to make a snap judgement is useful if you are in a potentially life threatening situation but less useful if you are trying to make a decision about an individual’s ability to perform a complex job. At this stage stereotyping becomes less useful to us. The problem is research from Monster indicates this important, yet very primeval way of interpreting the world, is still clearly an important deciding factor in recruitment interviews.

This is worrying. Logically we know that snap judgements are limited in effectiveness, regardless of how much someone believes they are “a good judge of character” (unfortunately nearly everyone does!). This certainly reflects my own experience; I have witnessed companies of all shapes and sizes rely on no more than a CV and a hastily prepared one to one interview. The consequences have been virtually always the same – consistently higher turnover due to recruiting the wrong people.

So what do we do about this? Firstly it’s about awareness. Once we realise we stereotype we can then sense check ourselves and let our logic and wisdom come into play. We can take practical steps to overcome perception bias.

Last week I was chatting with Michael Young, CEO of MBN Recruitment Solutions, with regards to how they employ their own people. MBN use an assessment centre format and when it comes to interviews they use a panel interview (comprising of more than just one person). Michael said everyone has to agree on a recruitment decision for the candidate to be selected. This clearly reduces the impact one person’s bias can have on the recruitment decision and Michael, who is a professional recruiter, was sure this more rigorous process which relied less on ‘feeling’ had improved the quality of new hires.

These steps also help the company to reduce the risk of perception bias and stereotyping.  Indeed any process which help objectivise the process is worthy of consideration. That is not to say that feelings are not important – at the end of the day people have to be able to work with one another. It is however about being prepared to try and assess people fully and being aware that if you don’t your unconscious self will be making big decisions based on very flimsy criteria.