Bias is insidious. Politics is the best example of bias at its worst. But it may be just as bad when it comes to hiring. It causes us to hire people we shouldn’t have and not hire those we should.

The problem starts as soon as we meet a candidate. If the person’s first impression is positive, we tend to assume competency and look for positive facts to confirm our instant response. When we don’t like someone, we look for negative facts. Eliminating bias starts by doing the exact opposite of what we normally do. In this case, it’s assuming those we don’t like are actually the most competent and those we do like aren’t.

While this mental reprogramming trick temporarily forces objectivity, determining actual competency comes next. 

Long ago I learned how to overcome interviewing bias by accident when asked to interview someone the company was considering for a short-term consulting assignment. The person came highly referred but I was instantly put off by his appearance, age and accent. Regardless, since we weren’t going to be best friends or even work together too long, none of this mattered. 

To get started I asked the person to give me a quick overview of his background and how he got to be an “expert” in the project area he was being considered to handle. It took 20 minutes to go through his work history and understand some of his major accomplishments and why he got assigned to them. It was quickly apparent he was a quick learner, hard worker and had the right background for handling projects comparable in scope, scale and complexity to the process improvement project envisioned. 

To better understand his team and management skills, I asked him to give me an example of the biggest project he ever led. Part of this was asking him a bunch of clarifying questions like these: 

This took another 20 minutes to fully understand the project and his role. By the time we were done it was abundantly clear he was extremely competent. However, to better understand his problem-solving and critical thinking skills, I described the project in broad terms and asked how he’d figure out the best solution for implementing it. We covered this over the next 20 minutes in a give-and-take discussion including some “what…if” questions. When we were done it was clear he understood the issues including knowing what he didn’t know and how he’d close these gaps.

Now here was a big surprise. By the end of the hourlong interview I was dumbfounded that I barely noticed his accent, his appearance was far better than I first thought, and I realized his age had nothing to do with his ability. As important, I was looking forward to working with him on the project. 

It’s now 30 years later and I’m still using this basic approach to reduce bias and increase assessment accuracy. It starts by forcing objectivity and then using a structured assessment process emphasizing past performance doing comparable work. 

Accurately Predicting Future Job Success Starts by Removing Bias from the Decision

  1. Define the performance objectives of the job before you start interviewing candidates otherwise, you’ll substitute you’re own biased frame of reference to decide competency and fit. 
  2. Conduct a semi-scripted three-part interview consisting of a work history review, digging deeply into the person’s major job-related accomplishments and conducting a give-and-take problem-solving session around the most important performance objective. 
  3. Conduct an exploratory phone screen first before meeting any candidate onsite using a shortened version of the above. This saves time and naturally reduces first impression bias when first meeting. 
  4. Measure first impression at the end of the interview by asking yourself, “How will this person’s actual first impression impact on-the-job performance?” 

After conducting a few of these types of interviews you’ll be equally dumbfounded. More important, you’ll discover how to control your own biases while building a more diverse and more talented team.


  • Lou Adler

    CEO, Performance-based Hiring Learning Systems. Author, Hire with Your Head and The Essential Guide for Hiring.

    Performance-based Hiring Learning Systems, Inc