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Tackling Bias in Executive Recruiting

06.05.2021 10:02

Why do humans use biases in making decisions?

While being exposed to millions of information simultaneously, humans have a limited amount of data they can consciously process. Therefore, many of our processing happens in an unconscious way. To be able to select and react to external stimuli, our brain uses unconscious automatic assumptions and inclinations about the stimuli that are called biases. Biases are not necessarily a bad thing. They are even necessary to make everyday life easier and to take the complexity out of the information that is constantly pouring in. However, they are mostly based on stereotyping and in-group preferences, things we would like to avoid in making important decisions in personal and professional settings. However, all of us are biased in one way or another and cannot simply turn it off, not even if we wanted to. For an example from biases towards gender roles you can check out the Twitter page of “manwhohasitall”. He replaces typical discriminatory statements about women with the male role. Have a look on the following example?

"Behind every successful woman is a strong man.”

Probably strange. And what about this statement?

"Behind every successful man is a strong woman.”

That does not sound unfamiliar. And the fact that the one sentence sounds less absurd in one of the two cases shows us a bias that still and wrongly associates women in our perception more with family and superficialities than men.

In recruiting, biased decisions make the hiring process subjective and unfair, leading to teams in corporations which are not diverse and not fully competent teams. In fact, the candidates are not evaluated objectively based on their qualification. In practice, studies have shown that it takes a recruiter about 6 seconds to scan a candidate´s CV and decide whether it pass to the next hiring step or not. One can assume, that this decision is not well elaborated and consequently highly driven by unconscious biases. In order to make better decisions, it is now important for recruiters to know which biases exist, what to look out for and how to try to reduce the use of them.

Are you aware about the significant biases in Executive Recruiting?

Let´s imagine you are a recruiter seeing a potential candidate's CV for the first time. It would be important to find out what is the candidate's current position, specific experience, academic studies and perhaps key skills. These things will certainly be looked at relatively quickly but at the same time other things will catch his or her attention. Has the candidate worked for a company where you worked as well? Or even worked in the country where you lived for a certain time? Automatically you sympathize with the candidate. The bias in this case does not occur by clearly selecting the candidate based on the similar experiences you both made. It is more about the influence of this information on the processing of the other information. After discovering that you have so many things in common, you tend to focus on the information about the candidate that fit into your requirements and ascribe less importance to the major information. This would be a classic example of the affinity bias. It describes our tendency to prefer someone who is similar to us in our experiences or preferences. Other examples of biases that might be problematic in executive recruiting are for example:

Confirmation bias: People tend to prioritize information that confirm their initial expectation. For example: Your colleague knows one of the candidates and speaks highly of him. While scanning the CV you unconsciously highlight the right information and reject the ones that don't fit. 

Overconfidence bias: This bias is related to the confirmation bias and can occur when the recruiter overestimates their own ability to select the best candidate. In this case, it allows the confirmation bias to have a great influence, because the recruiter's initial expectation was certainly correct from his own point of view.

Anchoring: This cognitive bias addresses the order in which we receive information. The first information stays in our memory and influences the following ones. This means that the first glance at a part of the CV is disproportionately important. Good, if it falls on the strongest position, bad if it falls on information, we don't like.

Halo effect: Here we simply tend to overvalue an information that we like and this overshines other information. For example, voluntary activities exceed relevant professional experience.

How could you mitigate biases in executive recruiting?

Now that we know which biases exist and how they can affect our executive recruiting processes, the most important question is of course how we can reduce them? The first step is to acknowledge that we are all biased. These biases are embedded in our society and cannot be eliminated by just knowing about them, but an awareness can positively influence our decisions. Another important point is: Take time to make assessments and make group decisions. Biases occur more often under limited time. Also, avoid listening too much to your gut feeling. A gut feeling occurs unconsciously and is thus built out of unconscious assumptions. Another tip would be to create detailed checklists and work through them. Allocate a certain time to each point. Quantifying and scoring your findings can help to evaluate your assessment objectively. Last but not least also define golden rules as part of your hiring decision making process e.g., “all identified candidates have to conduct the same personality test online” and defines K.O. criteria e.g., “candidates who are not ready to relocate near to the headquarters of the company are not pre-selected for this CEO role”.

Anna Koziol

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