Reducing Implicit Bias in Candidate Evaluation

By Lisa Meyer

By now, most of us are aware that implicit biases based on race, gender and other identity characteristics can lead to flaws in the hiring process. Therefore, we try at some level to avoid them. But even as we consciously work to avoid those identity biases, we often overlook our biases regarding the individual elements that make up a candidate’s application. Two of the most common biases that manifest in the review of written materials include institutional prestige and position titles.

Using institutional prestige as an example, it is often assumed that the college attended can substitute for the talents being sought in leadership candidates. Search committee members may equate graduating from a highly ranked institution with being smart, hard-working and qualified. The desire to hire candidates from more “prestigious” institutions is common, but it imbues the graduates from those institutions with characteristics they may not embody, and it propagates the systemic bias that has been observed in, for example, studies regarding college enrollment patterns.

While using “name brand recognition” as a substitute for experiences, qualities and characteristics of applicants is common, it does not lead to hiring the strongest individual for the role. Additionally, if hiring candidates from diverse backgrounds is important, recognizing that those applicants are likely to hail from a diverse array of institutions needs to be accepted, and even valued. Instead, a thoughtful and more intentional process – one that assesses the specific skills and experiences that an applicant brings to the role – is a more reliable way to make good hiring decisions.

Here are some tips to combat assumptions and biases when evaluating candidates’ credentials:

1. Define key skills:

Start by working with the hiring manager and the search committee to agree on the key skills for a candidate’s success. Is it important that candidates are able to analyze data or that they are excellent public speakers? Make a list of prioritized skills for success and continue to refer to this list at each step of the decision-making process.

2. Focus on responsibilities:

Use application materials as directional documents, but not as absolute evidence. Titles, for example might be identical for two applicants, while the responsibilities for each position might vary greatly. At some institutions, an AVP is the person in charge of the entire division, while at others, the AVP reports to a VP who oversees the division. What is more important than title is to understand the responsibilities, which may include: organizational structure, budget oversight, outcomes from projects the individual has overseen, etc.

3. Pre-screen by phone or video:

Assigning someone to pre-screen qualified applicants can be an effective way to understand each candidate’s work experience and the structure of their organization. When completed prior to the search committee’s selection of candidates for interviews, these screenings are a useful tool to provide context for the professional experiences reported in resumes and cover letters. When you work with a search firm, this should be part of their responsibilities. But if you are conducting a search on your own, you may choose to train someone to conduct these conversations. This step is time consuming, but can be highly effective at cutting through the assumptions of titles and duties to get at the actual work being done.

4. Ask skills-based questions:

Create interview questions that are directly tied to the desired skills and responsibilities. Ask every candidate the same questions and make a point of asking for examples of the work each candidate has done and the outcomes of those efforts. Here are some examples:

What are some specific ways you have advanced equity and diversity in your role as a leader?

Could you share an example of how you facilitated collaboration and synergy between your division and other administrative and academic units in order to solve a problem?

These questions require a candidate to recount specific details and steps that were taken to address areas of concern. It is helpful to know a candidate’s philosophy on an issue, but asking for specific examples provides insights into how each candidate is able to form a strategy, make transformative decisions and take impactful actions. Leaders who are able to move beyond philosophy into implementation are the ones who transform organizations.

5. Take notes:

After each interview, take notes on committee members’ impressions. Write down what people heard, both the negative and the positive. When all of the interviews are completed and it is time to compare the candidates, the committee can refer to these notes, basing decisions on the specific answers given by each candidate rather than on remembered impressions. After several interviews, it can be hard to remember the specific details of a conversation without referring to thorough notes.

6. Keep biases in mind:

Finally, keep the discussion regarding implicit biases alive throughout the interview process. The committee should talk about biases at each step of the process, not in a blameful or confrontational manner, but as a part of an ongoing conversation. As committee members discuss biases over time, they will become more comfortable and more engaged in the conversation, encouraging a more thoughtful and successful hiring process.

None of us is able to completely remove our biases from the decisions we make, but the more we focus on specific skills and experiences of candidates, the less likely we are to make biased decisions. This can take time and often requires rethinking our processes, but it also results in hiring leaders who are able to transform institutions for the better – which is to say, hiring the right person for the job.