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structured interviews

Do structured interviews overcome unconscious bias?

Structured interviews in the hiring process

Structured interviews with data driven questioning and assessment are being touted as the “new” way forward in selection processes to avoid unconscious bias, especially in relation to gender bias. Today, most interviewers adopt a fairly relaxed approach to interviewing. There is a strong preference for what seems like casual questioning about the candidate’s background and experience. But although unstructured interviews are perceived to be the most effective from a hiring manager perspective, research suggests that they are one of the worst predictors of on-the-job performance. They are considered to be less reliable than general psychometric testing and personality tests which can be as much as 85% reliable.

So why do we continue to do it?

Cultural fit

There is a long standing reliance on the ability to identify “cultural fit.” Many managers and leaders pride themselves on having the gut instinct to recruit the best talent. It’s possibly true that some do. But most don’t. What they do is follow the tried and tested P.L.U. method of hiring  – People Like Us. As most of the decision makers are male, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the 3M approach applies: Mini- Male- Mes. An interviewer’s perception of a candidate in an unstructured interview (a normal interview to you and me) is the over riding factor.

Removing human perception

Somewhat cynically I think it’s an unlikely and unrealistic expectation that we will be able to remove human assessment from hiring decisions. A candidate maybe considered to be the best via testing, but may struggle to fit in with the team. I have seen situations where candidates come into the 98 percentile on testing scores and still are not hired because the hiring manager just didn’t like him. Is this based on a bias? Of course. One that is very hard to define. His boss decided that the relationship between the manager and job holder would have been the key driver and the candidate was cut.

Unconscious bias is set up in our DNA to protect ourselves. This is why we hire and surround ourselves with P.L.U., from backgrounds similar to our own or that don’t cause us discomfort.

What are structured interviews?

Rather than relying on ad hoc questions, where the bias of an interviewer can be imbued into both the question itself and also how she receives the answer, it is believed that interviews should be set up so that all candidates are asked questions, in the same order and responses noted down at the time.  There is usually a half way point where an anlysis of the candidates performance is assessed. Interviewers are also held accountable for any perceptions and required to defend them.

The objections to structured interviews are that the communication flow is less organic and possibly stilted, but the results are likely to be more neutral. Response can then be compared systematically.

Candidate Score cards

Candidate scorecards from structured interviews are a more objective method of evaluation in which candidates’ responses are assessed against a predefined benchmarks. Hiring managers can  allocate a weight for each answer based on the requirements of the job in terms of skills and experience, company values,

Will data based questions really overcome unconscious bias? Google identifies certain characteristics that guarantee on-the-job success and structure questions around that. Laslo Bock, VP HR  in his book Work Rules identifies questions that “are behavioral, dealing with past scenarios, and situational, dealing with hypothetical scenarios.”

Psychometric or other testing

Many companies combine testing and an interview process. Frequently candidates are asked to complete behavioural interviews with a specific assignment in line with the requirements of the job. A practical skill test also allows employers to assess the quality of a candidate’s work versus unconsciously judging them based on appearance, gender, age and even personality. Some companies do hiring weekends of “trial by sherry” when they go through a gamut of social events and behavioural assessments. This does not necessarily eliminate bias. There is that urban legend where a candidate was supposedly cut for putting salt on his food before tasting it.

Balanced shortlists 

The reality is that it is not just the nature of the hiring process and whether structured interviews become the norm. The interview procedure can be as neutral as you like, but if the rest of process is riddled with bias and coded messages then the system is set up to fail. This can be in adverts, job descriptions, self- de-selection of female candidates, and other subliminal messages projected at candidate touch points.

One issue is the number of minority candidates short listed for each open assignment. Research from University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business, although not conclusive, suggests that the key is to have 2 or even 3 female candidates (or other discriminated group) on the short list to level the odds. Psychologically it deflects the black/white approach of “do I want this candidate or not”  to either or thinking.

Companies can insist that the executive search company or the in-house recruiter meet those requirements. If they don’t have the skills to go beyond the highly visible, low hanging fruit type of candidate identification, and many don’t,  they should use specialist organisations which do. Check out 3Plus International 

 A female candidate’s chances of being hired are statistically zero if she is the only woman in a pool of finalists

The most effective way to manage unconscious bias is to make hiring managers aware of their own biases. Then start managing them at every stage of the process.