Bias can enter the hiring process in many forms.
Some forms are blatantly illegal or unethical. Some are so subtle, we might not even notice them.
But they all create the same basic problem.
The key to understanding the causes and consequences of hiring bias is social cognition—the psychological processes we use to think about ourselves and others.
Let’s start with you.
How do you evaluate yourself?
We can break this down into 2 basic dimensions:
Self-Liking: How much you like yourself
Self-Competence: How competent you think that you are
There is generally a positive correlation between the two.
For example, people who really like themselves also tend to see themselves as more competent.
They are so tightly connected that we often talk about them as one and the same. All in all, are you good or bad? We call this general evaluation self-esteem.
How do we evaluate people, in general?
Similar to how we evaluate ourselves, we can break this down into 2 basic dimensions.
Warmth: How friendly or likable you think someone is
Competence: How competent you think someone is
Unlike evaluating yourself, these two dimensions are often negatively correlated.
Especially when stereotypes are involved. For example:
- Older people are often perceived as less competent, but still friendly and likable.
- Men who are more friendly and likable tend to be perceived as less competent. (And actually make less money as a result).
- Women who are more competent tend to be perceived as less friendly and likable. (And thus less likely to get jobs, raises, or promotions).
How do we evaluate specific people?
In the case of job interviews, we know that interviewers tend to make very quick “snap judgments.”
Decisions are often reached before they have really evaluated the candidate’s competence.
This suggests that interviewers tend to infer the candidate’s competence based on how friendly and likable they seem.
But does being friendly and likeable suggest that you are more competent (like with self-esteem) or less competent (like with many stereotypes)?
That depends on similarity.
When someone seems to be similar to us, we often use what we think about ourselves to make inferences about them.
More friendly and likeable = more competent
When someone seems to be less similar to us, we tend to rely more on general knowledge, beliefs, and stereotypes.
More friendly and likeable = less competent
The real problem
At the end of the day, interviewers are looking for someone who is both likeable and competent.
When a candidate is similar to the interviewer, they stand a much better chance of being perceived this way.
This hiring bias toward similarity undermines more obvious forms of diversity such as race and gender. This is bad because organizations with less diversity in these areas are generally less productive, and get less market share, fewer customers, and lower sales and profits.
But it also undermines more subtle “deep diversity” in areas such as educational background, life experience, personality, and styles of thinking. This is bad because groups and teams with less deep diversity are generally less cohesive and tend to perform worse.
What can we do?
We can’t—and probably shouldn’t—remove the human element from hiring. Would you want to hire someone that you never even met?
A better solution is to have a strong prediction about a candidate’s likely performance before you actually meet them (and before you find out how similar they are to you).