Quest for impartiality

How to avoid interviewer bias
By Brenda Brown
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/10/2010

Upon meeting, people naturally persuade, question and evaluate each other. In doing so, they come to conclusions about each other’s personalities, interests and more. These conclusions lead people to decide whether or not they like each other.

Yet human resource professionals are asked to set aside these idiosyncrasies — prejudices and preferences — during the hiring process to ensure they make an unbiased assessment of each candidate. While avoiding bias can seem contrary to human nature, ensuring each candidate is assessed fairly is a fundamental responsibility of the HR team. So how do they do that?

First, they must understand they are human and accept the fact they have likes and dislikes that do not fit with their professional duties. Without this acceptance, these feelings will inevitably lead to poor judgment and find their way into their professional effectiveness. Once they raise their self-awareness, they can use that understanding to check or control their questions and judgment and work towards achieving impartiality.

It’s also important to distinguish between preference and prejudice. Prejudice, an adverse judgment formed without knowledge of the facts, is unacceptable and a prejudiced interviewer cannot properly perform the job. Preference is another thing entirely. A person can prefer apples over oranges without believing apples are better than oranges. Interviewers must be aware of their preferences and continually work to ensure they do not skew the interview process.

How can HR professionals better ensure impartiality in the interview process? Often, the best way is to carefully document the requirements of the position and limit their role to finding a candidate who fulfills those requirements. Doing so requires a good understanding of the business and industry, coupled with an effective intake session with the hiring manager. By focusing on the job requirements, it is easier to stay centred on the right questions and judge the candidate’s responses.

It is critical to use a structured, consistent interview process that builds on the position requirements. Interviews must be as objective as possible so an applicant is not led in one direction or another by a question or unduly influenced by an interviewer’s reaction to his answers.

One approach is behavioural interviewing, which involves questions that focus on examples of past behaviour as a way to predict future performance. This approach is best conducted by a skilled recruiter who can evaluate candidate responses without leading the candidate to respond in a certain way.

Even the best hiring managers must be mindful of comfort bias. Comfort bias is the natural tendency to be more comfortable with people who share a similar background — linguistically, culturally or otherwise. To avoid this comfort bias, it is best to closely follow the job requirements and choose the best person for the position.

But who is the best person for the position? Certainly it can be argued a person with a similar background to others in a department will be more successful working with them. And there is no doubt fit within the corporate culture is important.

The question interviewers need to ask themselves is whether the candidate would be a good fit with the organization’s corporate culture, regardless of his nationality, religion, race or other factors.

That said, cultural diversity and sensitivity to cultural norms cannot be overlooked. A good interviewer must have a basic cultural understanding of the candidate pool in order to evaluate candidates properly. For example, most interviewers look for open body language and direct eye contact during an interview. But these characteristics are considered disrespectful behaviours in many Aboriginal cultures. Recruiters don’t have to be expert sociologists but cultural understanding, employment equity and inclusiveness are critical recruitment skills.

Most challenges of interviewer bias can be met by understanding our own preferences, focusing on the position requirements and conducting a structured interview with a view to hiring someone who fits with an organization’s corporate culture. Keeping these tips in mind will ensure you hire the right people the first time.

Brenda Brown is the Mississauga, Ont.-based senior vice-president of human resources at Compass Group Canada, a food service and support services company. She can be reached at (905) 568-4636 ext. 418 or

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