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Avoiding bias in the hiring process

I've worked with companies in the past that relied heavily on employee referrals for candidates. In many cases those referrals were given preferential treatment and bias krept into our interview process with them. I'm curious to know what steps people have taken to eliminate bias from interviews with candidates who are employee referrals keeping in mind these are friends of valued employees so we want them to have a great candidate experience.


  • Ethan, this a great question! To help remove bias especially with employee referrals, we've worked to treat every candidate as if they're an employee referral, i.e. create that great candidate experience for everyone so that no matter who you end up hiring, everyone would want to work at your organization. In addition even if someone is a referral, have them participate in the hiring and candidate process that you would put every candidate through. To avoid further bias I would encourage hiring managers to still evaluate candidates at the same level as others, create a process and hold hiring managers accountable for following that with all candidates, referrals or not. Hope that helps!

  • Great question Ethan, and wonderful thoughts Vicki!

    I made enough mistakes early in my last role as a hiring manager to see the difficulty that biased hiring creates.

    I feel victim to letting a referred interviewee "preach to the choir" and because I was so amused, I just let the behavioral mismatch questions go by the wayside...

    Are solution for this finding was two fold:

    1. We took as many interviewees as possible through a "group interview" of sorts, and watched them interact with each other... It was an excellent opportunity to see whether or not they could put their own position aside and respectfully listen to another... in the world I was in, we had so many applicants that this was possible unless the hire was a "no-brainer"...

    2. We brought in peers from unrelated departments of our company to interview the candidate. To make this one work, we had to minimize our conversations with that interviewer about the candidate.

    This process ultimately became standardized across many positions at the company.

    Ultimately, if there wasn't a majority of agreement across all interviewers, we didn't make the hire.

  • edited May 2019

    This is such a great question. I have to admit I really like employee referrals. It's hard to say I avoid all bias toward them, because that's how much I love working with a team that thinks so highly of their company that they want their friends and family to experience what they experience.

    My "secret" is simply to never change the structure of my personal interview or the process itself. For me, that looks like:

    1. Everyone takes a behavioral assessment before I will phone screen them, but also everyone who takes an assessment gets a chance to start the process and have a phone screen
    2. During the phone screen I ask 2-3 questions using behavioral interview questions that target any potential mis-match between the job needs and their personal drives (in the case of a very close match I ask confirming questions. (tip: Start the question with "tell me a bout a specific time when..." and you're asking a "behavioral" question)
    3. I always leave 1/2 of the time for them to ask me questions, and I'll decline to ask any questions during this time (I'm an extrovert so this part is hard for me)

    Im my case, I hire sales people, sho should be asking questions during their job so this becomes the ultimate behavioral interview technique.

    There are a few more tactics I might use but this would be a super long post. If a candidate can demonstrate they deserve a shot then they get to some in, present and meet my team.

    This structure does avoid bias, but I still would like those employee referrals to keep coming. :)

  • Bias can really be a loaded word. In some ways, all employee selection is about "bias" in that you are trying to bias your decisions towards people who are going to be the best performers.

    And ultimately, one of the very best predictors of future performance is past performance. Many times, because actually observing past performance is impossible on a candidate, companies use assessments to improve the odds of knowing "something" vs. "nothing."

    So as long as employee referrals are based on "observed" performance and hopefully high performance, you are increasing bias of a good hire in a positive direction.

    That said... enough research exists to suggest that we like those who are more similar and so referrals could actually reduce diversity if you are starting with a relatively homogeneous group of people. I think another way to combat this is to make the "referrers" to be thoughtful about whether they are referring someone they like, someone who will get them an incentive (e.g., money!) or someone who has really shown to be a high performer in the past. Usually referrers are a least partially responsible because the referral means the employee is actively putting their own reputation out there. Bring in bad people, and it is going to have consequences at least reputationally.

    So - obviously, you still want to tackle every hiring process with the most objective steps possible. But referrals based on strong-past performance, is probably one of the places I'd worry less about the impacts of bias. Just make sure your referral process doesn't incentivize just bringing anyone on-board. Be explicit that people who are being referred should have demonstrated some pretty high performance in the past.

  • I strongly believe in merit based decisions. Regardless of where the lead came from, someone should NOT be given preferential treatment apart from the courtesy of a phone call. I think of it as an additional data point among many more data points we will gather.

    I agree that past experience is a great way to try to predict future behavior and a referral is a solid starting point, however all candidates should follow a process and ultimately be chosen based on all components of their being- Head, Heart and Briefcase. @Jim Speredelozzi your 3 step process is a good outline for something that all candidates should go through. When we start skipping steps is when we start making mistakes.

    There are no shortcuts in hiring, only better ways to get a good lead!

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