The commonsense way to end interview bias

Written by: Lou Adler
Published on: Nov 16, 2018

interview bias christina-morillo

(Image: Christina Morillo)

Bias is insidious. I find it odd that we interview people we know differently than people we don’t know. With acquaintances, the focus is on the person’s past performance and potential, but with strangers we focus more on skills, personality, and presentation. Using this performance-based interviewing approach I stumbled upon years ago, you’ll discover you can more accurately interview strangers and acquaintances exactly the same way, just by assessing ability before assessing likeability.

Long before my recruiting days, I was asked by our CEO to interview someone he was considering as a consultant for a four-month project. Since I was part of the project the CEO believed my assessment would be important. The person came highly recommended, but I was instantly put off by his appearance, age, and accent. Of course, none of that mattered because we didn’t need to be best friends or work together for the long-term.

To get started, I asked for a quick overview of his background and how he got to be an “expert” in our area of need. It took 20 minutes to go through his work history and understand some of his major accomplishments. It was apparent that he was a quick learner, a hard worker, and had the right background for handling projects comparable in scope, scale, and complexity to the process-improvement project we envisioned.

To better understand his project management skills, I asked him to give me an example of the biggest process improvement effort he’d ever worked on. Part of this was asking him to clarify the following:

  1. How he got assigned the project.
  2. A description of the big challenges, the major deliverables, and measures of success.
  3. How he figured out the problem and developed the plan.
  4. A detailed description of the project plan and the major milestones involved.
  5. How he managed the plan and if it was met.
  6. How he selected and trained the people on his team (since he would be training us).
  7. The biggest decision he made, and the process he used to make it.
  8. The biggest problem he faced, and how he resolved it.
  9. The formal recognition he received, if any, for completing this project.

This took another 20 minutes, but by the time we were done it was abundantly clear he was extremely competent. However, I still wasn’t sure of his ability to handle our specific problems, so I just described our project needs in broad detail, and asked how he’d figure out the best solution and implement it. Here, I was more interested in the approach he would use to develop a solution, not the solution itself.

We covered this over the next 20 minutes in a give-and-take discussion including some complex “what if” questions. By then it was clear he understood our issues – including knowing what he didn’t know, and how to find the right answers.  

Here was a big surprise: By the end of the hour, I was dumbfounded to discover 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. In fact, we became pretty good friends long before the project was completed.

Forty years later, I’m still using this basic approach. The big finding: To eliminate bias, wait until the end of the interview to determine whether you like the person enough to make them a full-time employee, and whether he or she fits within your culture.

Bonus tip for jobseekers: You can force this ability-before-likability mindset by asking the interviewer to describe real job needs at the beginning of the interview, then describing a few projects from their past that are most related.

Lou Adler is the CEO of consulting and training firm The Adler Group, and the author of multiple books on performance-based hiring; his latest is The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired. You can learn more about his performance-based hiring approach online through The Hiring Machine.

This article originally appeared in a slightly different form on LinkedIn.