How to overcome interview bias (including the mini-me effect)

interviewees sat down

How to overcome interview bias (including the mini-me effect)

Most of us would not say we are biased. We consider ourselves to be objective, fair-minded individuals, capable of judging people solely on the basis of merit. The reality is somewhat different; as human beings we all use shortcuts to form impressions of people, including when recruiting.

Research over the last 20 years* has shown that we are susceptible to unconscious biases that come from direct experiences we’ve had with people and situations, as well as through indirect experiences from media and culture.

A report from the CIPD last year** found that employers’ perceptions of whether a person would fit with their company could be determined by a whole host of factors that had no impact on performance; including their looks, the university they attended, their leisure interests and even the candidates’ name.

The UK transport & infrastructure industry features many major international companies working on multi-billion-pound projects. But, like most sectors, when it comes to recruitment of people into senior roles it can still feel like a small world, with the same names cropping up time and again.

So what should we look out for when interviewing? The following are some of the common interview biases;

First impression bias

It’s often said that interviewers can make their mind up about whether they want to hire someone within 3 minutes of meeting them.

Temporary nervousness at the start of an interview is not uncommon, although nerves usually subside as the interview progresses, the damage may be already done. Does this nervousness make someone a bad candidate?

For business development roles and other externally facing roles a visibly nervous candidate may give justifiable concern, after all they may be expected to build rapport with, and present to, people they don’t know frequently. However for more internally focused roles, putting too much emphasis on first impression could de-select strong candidates.

Beauty bias

It’s not fair or right, but candidates who are more physically attractive stand more chance of being successful in interviews. Unfortunately, attractiveness has been found to influence employers’ hiring judgments; attractive candidates are generally perceived as more likeable, happier, and to have more socially desirable traits. Studies*** have consistently found that this unconscious attractiveness bias in the workplace impacts decisions on hiring, as well as promotions and compensation.

In case you were wondering research shows that attractive people are no more or less capable, intelligent, or sociable than less attractive people! So even though we may not set out to hire based on looks, we probably unconsciously do.

Using a structured competency interview format alongside other objective forms of evaluation, such as case study exercises and work samples, may reduce the risk of this happening.

Mini-me effect

Many interviewers have an unconscious tendency to favour people who are similar to themselves. They look for mini-me protégés that they can train up. Narcissistic yes, but true.

This is common when the interviewer is back-filling their role or interviewing for a position they have previously undertaken. They feel their own background is ideal for the role, so when they see someone with a similarity to them (such as attended the same university) they have an innate tendency to seek confirmation that the candidate is good.

I’ve been asked in the past by a very sporty Managing Director to ideally find people who have played sport to a high level. There was no direct link between sporting achievement and the requirements of the Director vacancy. His personal view was top achievers will compete at a high level in sport as well as work, as he and a number of his fellow Directors did.

Clearly this could exclude some very capable people from making the company’s shortlist. But it’s not black and white. There is an argument that finding someone with similar interests outside work will help a new employee fit into the team.

The mini-me effect clearly does not help recruit a diverse team. If you keep hiring people like yourself you may end up with teams of people with the same strengths and – critically – the same fundamental weaknesses. Having two interviewers at each assessment stage can help to counter this effect.

Halo effect

The “halo effect” is a type of bias in which the interviewer takes one of a candidate’s key attributes/achievements and positively generalises about the rest of your skills and experiences based on this one factor! For example, ‘Bob gave a great presentation at an industry conference I went to last year; he must therefore have all the leadership skills we need for this role to.’

The devil you know

Recruiting is an inherently risky process, for both the employer and candidate. One simple way to de-risk the process is to employ people you have worked with in the past.

There are some companies in the industry where there senior team all worked together previously at the same business. While this can be beneficial, at least you know what you are getting, it is limiting.

When we present a longlist of potential candidates to a client for their input, it is commonplace for the hiring team to say they already know a handful of them. The bias to previous colleagues could work either way. They may rule a capable person out based on their recollection of their position five years ago. Or they could favour a candidate who impressed in a meeting – even if the role they are trying to fill would not require the same skills. Things change. People change.

We recently filled a project director position for a joint venture on a major transport project. Our client had a clear favourite of the other shortlisted candidates but went with the consensus of opinion from their JV partners who had worked with one of the other shortlisted candidates before. Our client didn’t want to stick their neck out for the best candidate.

Stereotyping bias

“That business isn’t doing well; we don’t want to consider anyone from there.” – is a common example of this stereotyping. However, not everyone within a business which is struggling is bad, just as not everyone in a high-performing business is good. This type of thinking eliminates some good candidates from consideration.

Finding the right fit for a senior position is an important and challenging job, and our unconscious bias makes it even tougher. Professional executive search companies like us can help make it easier.

If you want to explore new avenues of talent, and step away from the same old names that crop up, just click here to get in touch. I’d happily spend ten minutes talking with you about how to thoroughly map the market and improve your recruitment processes.

Thank you for reading my post. I regularly write about issues effecting talent and recruitment in the transport and infrastructure sectors.


* Banaji et al (2003)

** Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, A Head for Hiring 2015: Behavioural Science of Recruitment and Selection

*** Cornell HR Review (2013). May the Best Looking Man Win: The Unconscious Role of Attractiveness in Employment Decisions

Author: Jim Newsom

Jim Newsom

Managing Director