The people you hire can make or break the company. That’s a lesson I learned early on. I also learned that making the right hiring decision is hard. There are no easy yes-or-no questions to filter out candidates.
These challenges make it easy to fall back on feelings and intuition when it comes to hiring. Now, gut feelings have their time and place—but making hiring decisions isn’t one of them.
In my role as growth director at Reaktor, I’ve been innovating with our hiring practices for almost a decade. And after hundreds of hours of interviews, I’ve identified three critical shortcomings new interviewers often fail to recognize in themselves. Here’s what I learned.
1. Unconscious bias
Imagine a scenario where you sit down with a candidate and ask some questions. Almost instantly, it feels as though things are going well, and you’ve formed a real connection. You feel good about them, so you conclude that they must be a good fit for the company. But why do you think that way?
It’s important to interrogate your thinking: Why do you feel that the person you’re interviewing is “smart” or “competent”? And do you know it to be true? It’s vital to ask yourself how the candidate demonstrates those qualities. Is there concrete evidence? If you can give yourself and others conclusive answers to these self-imposed questions, then you’re much more likely to make a merit-based hiring decision.
However, if you can’t justify your thought processes and explain why you “feel good” about a candidate, then you might be relying on unconscious bias. Unconscious bias is a trap any interviewer can fall into, one where you form a decision based on first impressions or simply because you’ve come to like a person. That likability can grow out of a subliminal ego boost (like a candidate flattering you on your work or laughing at your jokes) or a sense of similarity (same work history, same alma mater, same personality traits, same life situation). This can lead you to dismiss potential shortcomings that are relevant to the candidate’s skills or work experience.
Some hiring managers have camouflaged unconscious bias as “the beer test” or “the airport test.” “Do you see yourself getting a beer with this person after work?” “What about a 12-hour layover? Would you enjoy it with them?” Don’t do this. I’m not telling you it’s wrong to like your coworkers, but employing this “method” tends to lead to a homogenous workplace. It also makes you more likely to miss out on great candidates.
2. Being uncomfortable with silence
You’re doing an interview, and you ask a tough question such as, “Could you describe a situation that included a conflict?” and an awkward silence fills the room. So you start qualifying your question, explaining it in a different way to help keep the conversation flowing. “So what I mean is, how do you see your role . . . Are you the one who gets upset, or the one who tries to mediate between sides, or would you rather take one step back and listen before you act . . .”
When you do this, you might be giving away the answer you’re looking for. An eager interview candidate can volley your own words back at you in a slightly different form, which gives you the illusion of a perfect answer. That, in turn, creates a false sense of common ground and likability.
You need to be comfortable with silence as an interviewer. Let the candidate figure out their own way around a question, which means giving them time to process what you’ve just asked. Even if a candidate says, “I’m not sure . . .” and falls quiet again, you need to remain silent.
If you find it challenging to hold your tongue, try mentally counting to 10 first, and then to 50 if needed, before readdressing the interviewee. Remind your co-interviewer(s) in the room to do the same. You can ask the candidate if they found the question difficult. Alternatively, you can rephrase what you initially asked or approach the same subject with a different question.
3. You find it difficult to listen
When you’re recruiting for roles that require creativity or problem solving, you need to figure out a candidate’s thinking patterns. Closed-ended questions may work against you. If you ask questions you already have a fixed answer for, you may immediately dismiss any other answers as wrong, even if they’re actually more insightful than yours.
Remember that the interview candidates don’t work for you yet, which means that by default, they have incomplete information on the company. So if you find yourself not hearing the answer you want, remember that you are instead trying to find out how people think. Lead with open-ended questions. Bring your attention back to what they said and listen to the answer thoroughly before you make further judgments.
Take the interview process as an opportunity to get to know a candidate’s thinking patterns and personality, and in that way, evaluate their potential effectiveness at dealing with the issues and tasks waiting for them on the job. Be mindful of any perception bias. Let the candidate tell you who they are before jumping to conclusions.
Repeat to your interviewee what you’ve understood to be their strengths and weaknesses, as well as their likes and dislikes—and see if they agree. This demonstrates active, engaged listening on your part. Also, it gives the candidate a chance to correct you if you’ve misheard or misunderstood them.
Avoiding these shortcomings will expand your thinking and allow you to see new points of view. Candidates surprise us when we let them, so be open to it. Don’t put yourself in a position where you’re likely to miss out on a great hire.
Toni Strandell is the director of design and growth at Reaktor.