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3 Ways to Combat Bias in the Executive Search Process

Posted by Reed Flesher

Bias is something that affects all of us to some degree, whether we realize it or not. In episode 3 of Executive Recruiter 2.0, I talked with Robert Crowder, Managing Director of Chapman Farrell Group, about how behavioral economics influences hiring decisions. Crowder, who has over 25 years of experience in the recruitment industry, highlighted several common biases executive recruiters face, and identified ways to combat these in order to make more rational hiring decisions.

Slow down the thinking

There are a number of ways to combat bias in the executive search process. According to Crowder, “biases usually wind up manifesting when we’re thinking fast.” Because of this, Crowder advises executive recruiters to slow down their thinking a bit. “By having a hiring manager actually define and prioritize the outcomes that are expected from a hiring decision and getting that validated by all the key stakeholders, it changes the evaluation process, it changes the mindset,” says Crowder.

Crowder explains that this process slows the way people are thinking so they’re less likely to make hiring decisions that are unconsciously influenced by how similar candidates are to themselves. Robert states, “By making sure we have these prioritized outcomes it forces you to think about how you articulate that person’s behavior in light of these very objective standards.” This “does wind up slowing down the thinking and making it a little bit more cognitive,” says Crowder.

Manage the debrief session

According to Crowder, “there are things that you can apply, even in a debrief session, to be able to make sure that there is less bias versus more bias.” For example, when the team gets together to discuss a candidate after the interview, “your role may be to be the dissident voice,” said Crowder. Referencing the Asch conformity experiments, Crowder explained that individuals often have a tendency to go with the majority opinion shared by a group, even if they disagree with it. In order to combat this, it’s important to make others feel safe voicing opposing opinions.

For example, imagine that after an interview everybody on the team agreed that the candidate seemed like an analytical thinker. Crowder advises asking questions such as, “Did anybody get any sense that they were slow to make decisions?” By voicing this strength as a weakness, it gives others in the room a chance to say if they saw something different than the group did. “Even if everybody winds up agreeing later, you actually made it safer for that dissident voice to be able to be heard, just by saying something that made it safe in that environment,” said Crowder.

Another way to make sure people feel safe voicing their opinions during the debrief is to not have the leader speak first. “Politically, people sometimes will just align with the leader,” said Crowder. Whether it’s because they are scared, or just don’t want to cause any waves, people have a tendency to agree with whoever is in charge. Crowder continued, “Don’t let that person speak first, because it can wind up swaying that whole discussion and not getting real collaborative dialog that’s going.”

Level the playing field

“Knowing that if we have two people that look very close to each other and we have somebody who is so different, the tendency is to pick the better of the two who look similar,” said Crowder, referencing the decoy effect. Crowder goes on to explain, “if diversity is one of your goals, to just have one woman or one minority candidate when the rest of them are different than that, you have almost set yourself up in a bad way to not have success in moving that initiative.” To truly set yourself up for success, it’s important to have a few more comparative points to try and mitigate some of the risks that come with having no other point of reference.

Crowder also talked about priming, which is a phenomenon in which exposure to one thing influences your response to something else. For example, Crowder gave the example of talking about a highly esteemed figure such as Martin Luther King Jr. prior to interviewing an African American candidate. Crowder explained, “it actually winds up leveling the playing field.” This is because “if the person just happened to watch the news where, all I see and all I’ve seen is a negative experience with this particular group, they enter that interview with that kind of mindset,” said Crowder. He notes that it’s important to realize, “we are easily primed whether we are consciously aware of it or not.” By raising up somebody who might be common or well liked in a particular category – whether it’s women, people with disabilities, or minorities – in front of hiring managers, it helps make sure you’re starting off on a balanced foot.

Lastly, Crowder warned to be aware of decision fatigue. “Depending on the time of day that your candidate comes in, it can actually have an impact on how that person is viewed, as a result of just timing,” said Crowder. To demonstrate, Crowder brings up study indicating that judges are more likely to rule favorably earlier in the day or right after they’ve just had a break. When they are tired later in the day or hungry right before a lunch break, this negatively impacts their decisions. This applies to recruiting too. Give candidates a fair shot by being mindful of the time of day they are interviewed and how long they are being interviewed for.

To learn more about combatting bias in the executive search process, check out the latest episode of our podcast, Executive Recruiter 2.0. Crowder talks more in detail about the principles of behavioral economics and how these play a part in the decision making process of an executive recruiter.