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How to Make Sure the Right Candidate gets the Green Light

Here’s how you can train interviewers to eliminate emotional bias using an objective, fact-based approach to focus on getting the answers you need most.

Have you ever heard a hiring manager insist that a candidate is the best fit after reviewing their resume — and without ever interviewing or meeting them? Maybe the candidate went to the right school, worked for the closest competitor, or even merely had the same title and vaguely similar responsibilities to the open position. The flip side, obviously, happens, too. Maybe the candidate doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree or enough experience in the same industry.

Some leaders have told me they never hire anyone who doesn’t take notes during their interview. One manager didn’t want to hire a marketing candidate because they weren’t “bubbly” enough in the interview like they thought “all marketing people should be.”

Let’s take a look at some common examples of emotional bias among interviewers and hiring managers. A wide range of these biases can come into play during the interviewing and hiring process. They can derail a promising and qualified candidate’s chances, depress the quality of hiring results overall, and they can be hard to spot and tough to neutralize.

Common Emotional Biases in Hiring

Halo effect – This occurs when you are dazzled by a candidate’s positive features to the point where you’re distracted from considering their other attributes, including those that are negative.

Horn effect – This is the opposite of the halo effect: allowing a candidate’s weak points to overshadow their positive qualities.

Gender, race, religion, disability, and other protected classes – This encompasses bias regarding whether or not gender, race, or faith makes a candidate suitable or unsuitable for a given role, based on preconceived preferences derived from the qualities an interviewer associates with those classes of people overall.

Age bias – Bias regarding whether or not age makes a candidate suitable or unsuitable for a given role, based on preferences derived from the qualities an interviewer associates with age overall.

Confirmation bias – We often search subconsciously for evidence that aligns with our own opinions, rather than objectively considering the whole situation or person. This drive to confirm pre-existing judgement often leads to overlooking evidence to the contrary and instead focusing on things that fit a preconceived view.

First impression – A first impression is always a powerful impression of a person, and is a valuable source of information based on the emotions a person evokes at first encounter. But it’s important to be cautious and take time to allow a candidate’s true nature to show itself, rather than jumping to conclusions.

Unreachable standards – Hiring managers often fall into the trap of seeking candidates who not only check all the boxes, but who greatly exceed expectations for an ideal candidate. Be careful not to mark everyone who comes through your pipeline as “not good enough,” because you could miss out on talented people.

A solution for removing these hiring biases is to put in place a process that focuses on the key competencies required to do the job, and by cultivating the right mindset as an interviewer.

Three Steps to Removing Emotional Bias

Try implementing this three-part process to ensure that removing bias is repeatable and top of mind for interviewers:

  1. Define your success target.

  2. Build behavioral interview guides and applicant appraisal forms.

  3. Deploy the Traffic Light Mindset in all your interviews.

1. Define a Success Target

At the start of the hiring process, the interviewers and hiring manager involved need to be on the same page about what you are looking for and how to conduct interviews. Here are some key items to define and document for doing this effectively:

  • Define the soft skills and level of emotional intelligence that has led to success in this role, on this team, and for this manager.

  • Define the hard skills, certifications, and level of experience that is required for this position.

  • Based on the competencies and skills identified above, identify the weight of each in order of importance.

Document all of this information and present it as a “how-to” for everyone involved in the interview process. By identifying these success targets, you essentially build an applicant appraisal form.

Here is a link to more detail about the applicant appraisal form process and how to implement as part of your hiring process:

2. Build a Behavioral Interview Guide

The secret of removing emotional bias from the interview process is to develop, and stick to, a set of key behavioral interview questions. These questions are designed to drill down into and identify whether the candidate has the core competencies and skills identified within your success target. By concentrating on these questions, an interviewer is better able to gather factual information and be less distracted by their emotional preconceptions or bias.

All interviewers should be held accountable for asking the targeted questions, recording the answers accurately, and evaluating the candidate’s responses on the applicant appraisal form.

I’ve built a behavioral interview toolkit with over 25 competencies and over 100 legally reviewed behavioral questions that can help you put together your candidate interview guides. Just send me a message and request a copy; I’ll send one to you.

3. Use the Traffic-Light Mindset

Interviewing, evaluating, and hiring candidates for your organization, is a big responsibility. In a sense, you’re the “Spam Filter” whose job it is to prevent “viruses” from entering your workplace and culture. To effectively play the role of steward of your company’s culture, your mindset must reflect this responsibility.

The “Traffic-Light Mindset” can help you fulfill this responsibility and remove emotional bias. Here are the three most important questions you’ll want to answer about candidates and how each relate to the Traffic Light Mindset.

  • Can the candidate do the job? = Red Light Here you are asking interview questions and gathering behavioral evidence to determine if they have the skills and competencies outlined in your success target. If the evidence shows they don’t, then we stay at a Red Light for this candidate. It’s a no-go. If they have the capabilities you’re looking for, then they pass the Red Light test and the interview moves on to the Yellow-Light Test.

  • Will the candidate do the job? = Yellow Light Here you’re asking questions and gathering behavioral evidence to determine if the candidate has the drive and motivation to do the job. There are many talented candidates, but not all talent is motivated internally and consistently. Identifying core motivations is the key to passing the Yellow Light test.

  • Does the candidate fit our team and culture? = Green Light Here you’re asking questions and gathering behavioral evidence to determine if the candidate fits the team and culture. We often hire based solely on whether the candidate can do the job, but this attitude risks interpersonal issues and unwanted turnover if the candidate later turns out to be a poor fit for the team or the company culture. To pass the Green Light test, you must be able to say “yes” to the following: they can do the job, they will do the job, and they fit our team and culture.

By implementing this simple and objective approach to the problem of bias, you’re helping interviewers remove it from their evaluation of candidates, focus on the success target — and boost the chances of hiring candidates that are great culture fits and more successful.


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