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Getting Around Primacy Bias In Interviewing and Recruiting

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November 13, 2021

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Hiring is supposed to be the coldly objective methodology that provides you with the best people for all your open roles. However, if your recruiting process has flaws in it, it might be less than ideal for producing the results you need. 

For example, unconscious biases could sneak in, sabotaging your efforts. These are the prejudices lying just below the surface of our conscious awareness. Most of the time, we don't even realize we have these subconscious prejudices, which makes their effects all the more harmful. 

Members of homo sapiens are hardwired to make rapid-fire decisions. That's because when we were hunter-gatherers on the savannah and were confronted by danger, we quickly killed our prey. Or, we got out of there in a hurry. 

We still do this today, thousands of years later. However, a lot of the decisions we make are based on unconscious biases. How we were raised, socialized, and exposed to societal diversity are all factors that feed into our subconscious decision-making process. 

Unfortunately, unconscious bias kicks in whether we want it to or not. In a perfect universe, the decision to hire a new team member would be based only on their potential for exceptional job performance. This means hiring would always be done objectively, free from the influence of insidious subconscious bias.

All too often, well-meaning supervisors tell recruiters to trust their gut instincts when making a hiring decision. However, this advice can allow unconscious biases to creep in. 

How unconscious hiring biases can hurt a company 

Experts estimate the cost of workplace bias to be more than $64 billion annually. One of the areas most affected is in hiring practices.

Hiring managers can have difficulty fairly assessing a candidate if their minds are clouded by unconscious biases. Biased hiring decisions often lead to bringing team members on board who aren't suitable for the job. This can cause an increase in employee turnover, costing a company thousands of dollars a year they didn't need to spend. 

It can also spark legal battles and interfere with an organization's diversity efforts. 

What's primacy bias? 

One of the most subtle yet still potentially damaging of all unconscious hiring influences is primacy bias. This is the tendency to remember the first piece of information we encounter better than information presented to us later on. 

Like all unconscious biases, primacy bias undermines our ability to make good decisions. When an individual unwittingly allows their opinion to be manipulated based on first impressions, the probability of making a wrong decision increases exponentially.  

Primacy bias can crop up in a variety of ways. For example, when you try to remember what was on a long list you wrote. Typically, you'll remember the words at the beginning of the list better than words at the middle or the end. 

That's because items that appear first on a list are more easily stored in your long-term memory than things listed further down. It takes far less brain processing power to recall a single item (the first thing listed) than to remember multiple things (the rest of the stuff on your list). 

The primacy effect has a powerful impact on the choices we make. Understanding how to counteract its adverse effects allows us to make better judgments. 

Primacy vs. recency bias

Let's say you tried to memorize a long list and were only able to remember only the first and last few items. If this has ever happened to you, you've just gotten a tantalizing taste of how primacy and recency biases work. 

Recency bias is when an individual is overly affected by information presented later rather than earlier in a selection process. Of course, this is the diametric opposite of primacy bias. While each can occur for different reasons, they both can have a devastating effect on your hiring decisions. 

It's kind of interesting that what we do first and what we do last often matters the most! 

Systemic effects of primacy bias 

Studies have shown that the candidate listed first on a ballot in elections receives a more significant proportion of the vote. For example, during the 1998 Democratic primary in New York City, election officials rotated how names were listed on ballots in every precinct. 

In 71 out of the 79 elections, candidates who were listed first got more votes than candidates listed in other positions. In seven cases, the advantage gained by being listed first exceeded the victory margin. This means that if this candidate had been listed at the top of the ballot in all precincts, they could have won the election. 

Other studies have shown that individuals who wanted to vote but didn't have sufficient information to make an informed decision about who to vote for were strongly influenced by how candidates were listed on a ballot. 

These voters generated reasons why they voted for a particular candidate, even when the only reason they chose that individual was because of primacy bias. 

Primacy bias in hiring decisions 

Primacy bias interferes with the ability to make high-quality decisions. It undermines companies' efforts to fulfill equity, diversity, and inclusion goals. In short, it leads to decisions that have little to nothing to do with future job success. 

Primacy bias could crop up because you're interviewing an applicant, and they're late. It could also occur if they give a horrible answer to your very first interview question. These early negative interactions might cause you to form an unnecessarily negative impression of the candidate, thus clouding your judgment. 

However, it's natural for people to get nervous during an interview, rendering them susceptible to making at least a few mistakes. Suppose this candidate does well on the rest of the interview but falls victim to primacy bias. In that case, this is a tragic blow to both the applicant and your organization. 

Another example is if a candidate starts an interview by telling a joke. Sometimes, an interviewer remembers an attempt by a candidate at being humorous rather than more job-related details. Depending on both their comedic skills and your tolerance for this kind of workplace-related drollery, you could either be delighted, offended, or completely indifferent. 

In any event, your reaction could solidify into unconscious primacy bias. 

Primacy bias also rears its ugly head in interview order. If you interview several candidates on the same day, you'll tend to remember the first one the most. This could make this interview the one by which all others are judged. If that happens, better-qualified candidates might not get a fair shake just because they were interviewed later. 

Being the first candidate to be interviewed shouldn't have any bearing on a hiring decision, but unfortunately, it often does. That's sad because all the stuff in the middle of the interview is a better predictor of job performance than the stuff that comes at the beginning. 

How to minimize the effects of primacy bias 

Avoid reading resumes until later 

While resumes and cover letters are typically the first things a recruiter sees pertaining to a candidate, they're not particularly helpful for predicting future job performance. 

Resumes can reveal details about skills and experience. However, they can be full of potentially biasing information about ethnicity, race, gender, age, and socioeconomic status. Language choice, content, and design on a resume or cover letter might all leave an indelible impression that has little to do with future job success. 

Let's say you don't think it's practical to avoid reading resumes until later. In that case, another thing you can do is to use a software program that removes relatively superficial attributes, such as demographic characteristics, from resumes. 

This way, a candidate's specific qualifications and talents will be the first thing you see. 

Take extensive notes 

To minimize the harmful effects of primacy bias, take extensive notes during an interview. That way, unconscious factors will be less likely to influence you, and you'll be able to more objectively evaluate the candidate. 

Conduct a work sample test 

A work sample test replicates the tasks an applicant would be doing if they got the position. They're considered by industry experts to be an excellent indicator of future job performance. 

A skills test forces recruiters to judge a candidate solely on the quality of their work instead of being unconsciously influenced by factors such as appearance, gender, age, or personality. 

This greatly diminishes the possibility that primacy bias will undermine your hiring decisions. 

Implement a structured interview process

Studies show that unstructured interviews are often unreliable for predicting job success. These are the kinds of interviews that lack clearly defined questions and where experience and expertise are revealed organically through discussion. 

A structured interview takes some of the power away from the involuntary influence of first impressions by providing every candidate with the same job-related questions and a standard scoring methodology to use when grading their responses. To help the decision-making process to be even more objective, interviewers should immediately score answers. This eliminates the need to remember the quality or substance of an applicant's answers later on. 

Preferably, interviewers shouldn't know how well an interviewee did on the work sample. The goal is for the interview to be yet another independent data point. This makes the decision-making process more objective and thus less susceptible to being tainted by the insidious influence of primacy bias. 

Hiring a network recruiter can help avoid hiring biases 

At Hunt Club, we've fine-tuned our recruiting process to a razor-sharp point. We've worked hard to ensure that our methodology is free of virtually all the cognitive biases that result in hiring less than ideal candidates. 

If you need a dependable pipeline full of high-caliber executive talent, give us a call today!  

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