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Ever caught yourself thinking, “This candidate just feels right,” during an interview? Chances are, it’s not your razor-sharp instinct for talent, but rather an age-old friend (or foe) at play:  bias.  Yup, we’re all biassed. And it’s not just a ‘you’ thing; it’s a totally natural human thing.

Our Brain has ‘Old-Skool’ Wiring

Our brains are like those classic cars:  vintage and hardwired for simpler times. They’re designed to make snap judgments about who’s in our ‘tribe’ and who’s not. This was survival 101 for our ancestors as it gave them the ability to make immediate ‘friend’ or ‘foe’ judgements that may just save their lives and keep the human race in existence, but in our modern, civilised world, this ancient circuitry hasn’t quite caught up…..

The world has moved on: but our brains haven’t.

We’re still living with the same innate, and sometimes very powerful, unconscious tendency to prefer people with whom we feel a natural “affinity” and it’s natural to gravitate towards people who remind us of, ….well, us. Take a look at your close friends. Notice a pattern? Often, they’re quite like us demographically. These are the “people like us” – the people we’re likely to feel more comfortable and relaxed with. And while perhaps more diverse than it might have been if you’d been living in a Victorian society, chances are it comprises a high proportion of people demographically similar to you.  

“I just hire the best person for the job”

It doesn’t take a huge analytical leap to realise that this natural human tendency to gravitate towards “people like us” isn’t always going to lead to transparent and accurate evaluations about people.  Especially when it comes to recruiting them into your business.  

The big problem is that our subconscious, while very quick at processing information (e.g. good hair, tie, shoes, accent) can be profoundly wide off the mark when it comes to assuming other attributes on the basis of such very limited data (e.g. good sense of humour, likes beer and rugby, good with customers, perfect fit for my team).  

How often, when interviewing for a job, have you shaken the hand of a candidate on first meeting them and taken to them immediately, just knowing within moments that they will be perfect for the job and for the team? Chances are this has nothing to do with your penetrating ability to spot talent in a millisecond – and much more to do with your ability to gravitate towards someone who reminds you – unconsciously, remember – of someone else who you like..

Because when it comes to hiring, all this means we might unwittingly prefer someone because they chuckle at our jokes, share our taste in music, or went to our University.

Studies galore into bias repeatedly show the same thing. These include Steinpres et al in 1999 and (more recently) Nuffield College, which have shown how deep these biases run, with evidence that applicants with male names, British-sounding names, or younger profiles often get the nod over equally qualified candidates, just because they fit the unconscious mould we’ve set.

So when you hear ‘I just hire the best person for the job’, clearly we all need a helping hand with this….

Hiring in your own mould can be very bad for business

As you might realise, far from being a good thing, there are actually significant risks in populating your business or your team with people who are very similar to you.  

Filling your team with mini-mes might seem comfy, but it’s like putting all your eggs in a basket that’s… well, pretty identical to your own basket. Diversity is more than just a nice-to-have; it’s a must-have. Diverse teams outperform the cookie-cutter ones in decision-making, learning, problem-solving – and ultimately business success, so it’s in everyone’s interests to work towards this if not there already.

A truly diverse team is a team which realistically reflects the company’s community and / or its customer base.  At the very least, it is a team that can point to having been selected from the broadest and deepest possible pool of talent, rather than a narrow stream of virtually identical candidates.

Taking the first step to change

Just simply being aware of bias and its potentially sabotaging effects is a good start: understanding that our natural tendency to be around people we can comfortably relate to doesn’t always result in the most accurate hiring decisions. Dr Helen Turnbull, an expert in unconscious bias, says that while we may never totally rid ourselves of bias, “we need to feel affinity for more people of difference” and “pay attention to our reactions” when “interacting across differences”.

If you want to find out how you can mitigate against bias in your hiring process & improve your team’s hiring overall, contact us via or call on 020 3951 1208