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Salary Benchmarking

Dealing with the unconscious bias issue

Late last year, over Friday afternoon drinks, I found myself engaged in a fascinating discussion with our organisational psychologist. The topic, predictive validity and unconscious recruitment bias – yes, I’m a nerd.

During the conversation, my colleague enthusiastically suggested that blind interviewing, such as behavioural phone-based interviews, was one technique to achieve a more objective recruitment result, by avoiding cultural biases.
This made a great deal of sense to me. Most of us have heard of the halo effect, affinity bias, beauty bias etc. The extent to which these unconscious bias’s sneak into our decision making will vary, but the fact that it does sneak in at all is somewhat of an issue and quite frankly unfair.

Motivated at the prospect of improving my recruitment process, I committed that for my next assignment I would undertake an initial phone screen, followed by a structured telephone interview, psych assessments (aptitude and personality) and then a final face-to-face meeting with the ‘best’ candidates.

Fast forward a few weeks and I was down to a shortlist of three strong candidates and generally feeling very good about my tweaked recruitment process. With gusto and confidence, I coordinated interview times through our client and waited patiently for the what was sure to be glowing feedback.

When the call came in, it went something like this:

‘Nick, umm, the candidates were okay, but we just don’t feel like they hit the mark.’

‘Okay, I’m sorry to hear that. How specifically did they miss the mark?’

‘Well, this role requires buy-in from across the business and I just don’t think they looked the part or would be taken seriously. We need someone more presentable and dynamic’

Oh dear, perhaps I forgot to inform my client of my recent unconscious bias epiphany!

Talk about caught between a rock and hard place. I knew that I had put the best possible candidates through to interview, but intuitively, I also knew the type of candidate that my client wanted to see. In short, it was someone like him; young, physically impressive looking, gregarious and dominant. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the similarity bias.

I should state at this point that I don’t want to completely reject the client’s reasons for wanting this type of candidate. After all, he lives and breathes the business and is arguably well positioned to comment on what may or may not work from a candidate perspective. Nevertheless, it was back to the drawing board for me.

Fortunately, I had exactly the candidate on our system that would fit this description and within one week he been interviewed and offered the role. This candidate was not as experienced or competent as those on the original short-list, but it was what the client wanted.

In hindsight, perhaps I should have pushed back harder with the client on the original shortlist or perhaps I was wrong and should accept that the client’s intimate knowledge of the business and its cultural nuances supersedes my external judgement. Perhaps I should have educated my client on the recruitment process and logic behind it. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps…

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