Cognitive Bias and HR

Julie Shenkman
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Job candidates carry the burden of failed interviews and unanswered applications even when the impressions they make on paper or in person have nothing to do with the hiring outcome. Hiring managers inadvertently make biased decisions every day by allowing preconceived judgements to outweigh an applicant’s genuine qualifications. Cognitive bias is instantaneous and difficult to avoid or detect, so human resource departments must develop strategies to evaluate the thought processes behind hiring decisions.

What Is Cognitive Bias?

When hosting interviews, hiring managers often make subjective observations and draw conclusions about candidates based on superficial information, such as clothing, weight, race, speech or gender. For example, an interviewer might view a nervous candidate as insecure or antisocial, or he might question whether a candidate with an accent is an effective communicator. On the other hand, interviewers may just as easily mislabel a candidate with an outgoing or confident personality as a good person or a strong leader.

Most hiring managers approach interviews with objective intentions without realizing that their preconceptions have already determined the outcome. This habit is known as cognitive bias, and it occurs whenever individuals subconsciously draw from codified experiences and beliefs when processing new information. The downside for job candidates is that many recruiters spend the interview looking for signs that confirm their biased opinions instead of focusing on a candidate's professional competence. Companies also suffer because bias motivates hiring managers to choose candidates they find most attractive or relatable over professionals with the right talent and skills for the job.

Overcoming Cognitive Bias

The ability to evaluate information and form conclusions is vital to human brain development, but an important factor of intelligence is knowing how to distinguish between solid facts, logical theories and baseless opinions. The trend toward hiring based on cultural fit opens the door to subtle forms of discrimination, encouraging hiring managers to make on-the-spot assumptions about the personality, motivations and accomplishments of a complete stranger. To avoid bias, human resource departments must predefine the standards candidates must meet and reassess that criteria multiple times during the course of an interview to make sure a hiring decision is verifiable.

Hiring managers are more effective at recruiting capable candidates when they choose a standardized interview process over free-form, creative questions, says Laszlo Bock, Senior VP of People Operations at Google. Companies immediately upset the playing field by asking candidates different question sets. They also miss out on opportunities to make clear comparisons, preferring to form judgments based on fictional scenarios that do not relate to the job. According to Bock, stronger candidates have the self-awareness and professional know-how to provide detailed examples of how they approach problems and the steps they take to find solutions.

Although job candidates often dread multistep interviews, meeting with multiple hiring managers reduces opportunities for unseen bias. Thorough team evaluation helps recruiters view candidates from an objective perspective and overcome their own inherent preconceptions. Companies can only build competent teams if they recruit hires with the most potential to improve workflow and introduce innovative ideas.

Photo courtesy of Stuart Miles at



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  • Joan A.
    Joan A.

    Interesting observations

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