Can bad hires be caused by your mind?

Your mind can cause bad hires if you don’t think about how it influences your hiring decisions.

To control this risk, you need to make yourself aware and curb the influence of your unconscious biases.

Let’s unpack this idea.  

5 minutes to make a hiring decision?

I’ve known many managers who swear by their ability to make fast hiring decisions. I’ve been guilty of doing this in the early days. 

I often ask other managers if they do this and why.

Some respond with a confident response not unlike this: “‘I’d know if someone’s right for the job in a few minutes. This aint my first rodeo!”

That’s not enough time to process

A part of your mind is processing your experiences in the background.

This is your unconscious mind at play. It interprets what you see and feel, and links it your past experiences and personal values.

It’s always processing your experiences, but is most active in the first few moments of an interaction. 

What your brain processes in the first few minutes

When you first meet the job candidate, your unconscious mind is taking notes on:

  • The office environment
  • The candidates’ clothes, shoes, haircut, smile, posture, tone of voice
  • What your conscious mind is thinking of all this

It compares these notes to the ones it has saved from your past experiences in similar situations. 

Your conscious mind interprets what the job candidate is saying while weighing in the feedback from your unconscious mind.

If you end a conversation within a few minutes, your initial impression of the job candidate will weigh heavy on your decision.

That impression weighs even stronger if you ask questions that don’t require heavy lifting from the conscious mind.

For example, when you ask surface-level questions that verify facts on the resume in front of you.

The risk of initial impressions

The unconscious mind does not process any data on what the candidate is saying in response to your questions.

It does not know about your work or the questions you’re asking. It works on a primal level. It’s the epitome of superficial.

So if an otherwise good candidate doesn’t match your unconscious mind’s idea of good candidate, you could reject them. 

Experience the risk in this example

Imagine you’ve got 2 candidates to interview today:

  • Candidate 1 – poor culture fit, but stylish and confident speaker
  • Candidate 2 – good culture fit, but average style and modest tone

You only have 5 minutes to interview each candidate. Both have identical resumes. You don’t know upfront about each candidate’s level of culture fit.

Let’s assume your unconscious mind knows that you put high value on style and the ability to talk with gusto.

Which candidate will get higher weighting? Remember that the unconscious mind does not care about cognitive concepts like culture.

With a manager spending little time asking solid questions, Candidate 1 will appear to be the better suited candidate. Risky business.

How to overcome unconscious biases

Here are strategies to overcome the influence of your unconscious mind’s biases:

  • Be vigilant of unconscious bias. Before you start an interview, reaffirm the need to see past superficial issues. Seek rational explanations for statements like “She’s good” or “I like him”.
  • Bring in multiple perspectives. It’s much harder to be biased if you draw in data from multiple people who value different things. Think about setting up an effective hiring committee.
  • Spend more time in each interview. This gives the conscious mind more time to interpret the situation in a rational manner.
  • Fill this time wisely.  Ask solid interview questions, not filler conversation. This way, you’ll get more meaningful data for your conscious mind to interpret and add to your hiring decision. 

Here’s a visual summary of these strategies:

Combine all of these strategies in order to effectively combat bad hire risk from unconscious bias.