Selection panel members are biased – we all are

Applicants express concern about selection panels being biased and prejudiced.

They usually have in mind biases about age, gender, cultural background. What they don’t consider, is that we are all biased and prejudiced. The issue is not whether we are biased (since we are), but whether we are aware of our biases and actively manage them when they could affect decisions.

While selection panels strive to be objective, to deliver a merit-based process, and to reach a decision based on work-related qualities, there will always be a subjective element to the process and decision. It is human nature to employ cognitive biases when assessing other human beings. We do it all the time. There is no point in demanding selection panels be 100% objective. They are human. They won’t be. What is needed is selection panel members who have the emotional intelligence to accept that cognitive biases operate, identify when they are operating, and discuss their impact.

What I cognitive biases? A cognitive bias is, according to Wikipedia, ‘a pattern of deviation in judgment that occurs in particular situations.’ Here are four that typically operate when interviewing people for a job.

1. Attribution error

When we only have observed behaviour to go on, or in the case of an interview, verbally described behaviour, we tend to make judgements about a person’s personality, intentions, motivations, beliefs. For example, if a person submits an application with a few typos, a reader might slide into judging a person as sloppy. If an applicant who is unfamiliar with government selection processes doesn’t register the significance of instructions about selection criteria or worse, fails to contact the contact officer, they can readily be judged as not having paid attention to detail or not being really committed to the job. More often than not these assumptions are wrong. They are also unfair. Assuming someone will not commit to a job because they are over qualified (whatever that means) could be dismissing an excellent candidate based on false assumptions.

2. Confirmation bias

Once we’ve formed an impression of someone we tend to search for information that confirms that judgement. What we usually don’t do is suspend judgement and search for contradictory information, or at least weigh up all the information before making a final decision. Panel members can assess an applicant as nervous (well who isn’t), unmotivated, or unprofessional in the first few minutes and easily slide into thinking ‘Not for us’ or ‘Not a good fit’ before all information is assessed.

3. Sequence effects

Despite looking good on paper, several applicants turn up for interview and prove to be ‘disappointing’. Then an ‘average’ applicant appears. The risk is this person is evaluated more favourably than they should be, simply because they look vaguely promising.

4. Contrast bias

A major risk for panels is allowing the first applicant to set the standard for what is a suitable set of interview responses. Whatever the first person says becomes the basis for deciding how subsequent interviewees are judged. This is a major abrogation of responsibility. It is a selection panel’s job to establish response benchmarks before they set eyes on anyone.

Another part of this bias is that interviewees are compared against each other rather than against a standard set by the panel. As each interviewee appears opinions are adjusted depending on how each applicant stacks up against each other. A skilled panel judges each interviewee against a pre-existing standard that the panel sets. Only after all evidence is in for all applicants is a comparative assessment made.

How can panel members reduce the effect of these biases? Here are five suggestions.

  1. Admit to yourself that you are biased and prejudiced. This is the nature of being human.
  2. Understand the range of cognitive biases likely to occur during a selection process and notice when are could be operating.
  3. Establish shared assessment standards as benchmarks before the selection process begins.
  4. Agree amongst selection panel members to raise biases and call each other on biases.
  5. Include in the process before finalising a decision, time to assess whether cognitive biases have affected the decision.
Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.