Identifying and Minimizing Cognitive Bias in Your Hiring Process

by: Etha Williams


Human beings make thousands of decisions every day–and we have to make most of them quickly with incomplete information. The alternative would look something like the parable of Buridan’s ass, in which a donkey starves to death while standing equidistant between two identical piles of hay because it cannot choose between them.


We instead rely on an array of mental short-cuts that effectively reduce our cognitive load; but these short-cuts can go awry when we’re faced with a high-stakes decision. Choosing the wrong route on a drive home will probably only cost you time; choosing the wrong route when skiing down a mountain could get you buried in an avalanche. And making the wrong call when hiring can cost you top talent and impede your efforts to eliminate bias from your hiring process.


That means working to identify and minimize the impact of cognitive biases is one of the most powerful things you can do to improve the quality and diversity of the team you hire. And evidence-based recruiting strategies are one of the best ways you can do that. As Atta Tarki puts it in Evidence-Based Recruiting, “Relying only on your willpower to remain neutral is unlikely to remove every bias from your decisions. The more we’re aware of such biases, the more likely we’ll be to override or eliminate them” (207).


Here are three of the most common biases to watch out for and avoid:


Availability Bias

When we use availability bias to make a decision, we rely heavily on the information that we can most readily recall and don’t take into account other information that might contradict it. For instance, when reviewing a candidate, you might remember that a recent hire from that firm left your company after only six months. As a result, you worry that this candidate will do the same, even though their resume shows no evidence of job-hopping.


Anchoring Bias

The anchoring bias could also be termed the “first-impression bias”: it refers to our tendency to “anchor” to the first piece of information we receive and evaluate subsequent information to fit with it. If a candidate answers the first question in an interview well—or even simply presents an impressive resume—you’re more likely to focus on the positive aspects of their subsequent answers, even if these answers are lackluster or flat-out bad.


Illusory Correlation

Illusory correlation refers to the tendency to see correlation between two factors that aren’t actually associated with each other—a cognitive bias that often affects the criteria on which we evaluate candidates. We see this most vividly in the drinking beer test: as Patti McCord succinctly quipped, “What if the job is not about drinking beer?” Illusory correlation—and the related phenomenon of affinity bias—is especially likely to occur in unstructured interviews that focus on the candidate’s personal life at the expense of measurable attributes.


Now What?

At ECA Partners, we work closely with companies to design and implement evidence-based, scalable search strategies that minimize the effects of these biases. An effective search works to eliminate bias before, during, and after the interview process through strategies including:

  • Standardizing the interview process to measure the attributes that correlate with future success—and not to measure irrelevant attributes
  • Increasing the diversity of both the pool you’re recruiting from and the interviewing team
  • Noting when a bias is affecting your evaluation of a candidate and mitigating it by using non-interview data or the input of other interviewers
  • Encouraging interviewers to form independent views
  • Tracking, improving, and debriefing your interview process

Rigorously designing, implementing, and assessing an interview process gives you the tools to combat cognitive bias and find the very best candidates for your needs. It’s one of the best investments you can make in your company’s future.



Etha Williams is a Project Manager at ECA. She can be reached at [email protected]



Etha Williams, PhD
Project Manager

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