How to Prevent Biased Interviews


What’s wrong with holding interviews? Plenty, it turns out. Most companies rely on a series of informal chats with several prospects that ends with a hiring decision. However, there’s strong evidence that this approach needs to be retired in favour of better techniques proven by scientific research.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell.

Interviews are filled with biases. In North America, studies have shown that during the average unstructured interview, the person hired is more likely to be tall, slim, good looking and speak in a deep voice. According to psychologists like Dr. Ron Friedman:

– Tall people tend to be evaluated as having better leadership skills. Decades of research show a relationship between height and salary at every age.

– Hiring professionals shown a picture of a heavy-set woman are more likely to describe her as lazy than other women by 21%.

– Good-looking people are thought to be more competent, intelligent and qualified.

– People with deeper voices are thought to have greater strength, integrity, and trustworthiness.

Here in Jamaica, it’s likely that skin colour, perceived class, and speech patterns are also invisible determinants. It probably helps to have browner skin, Upper St. Andrew pedigree and all the H’s properly pronounced.

Apparently, this judgement takes place in the first ten seconds of a conversation. The interviewer instantly decides what kind of person he/she is dealing with and slightly alters the questions accordingly. This isn’t random but an unconscious, powerful effort to confirm some initial, unwitting bias.

A few disagree, arguing that they are entirely fair and non-judgemental: their gut instincts and intuition are impeccable. They even share anecdotes which prove their superiority. This article is not for them. It’s for the rest of us who suspect that hidden tendencies are always embedded in interviews, requiring us to find provably better techniques.

If You Are the Interviewer

Here is a simple improvement to make: ask each person the same set of questions.

Another quick one is to phrase queries in specific terms that relate to actual events versus general what-if’s. For example, discard questions like “Share what you would do if you came across a difficult customer”. Instead, use the simpler “Tell me about a time you dealt with a difficult customer.” Unfortunately, research shows that 81% of people lie during interviews in their attempts to appear impressive. This technique is a great separator of future fantasy from factual, past-based reality.

However, the best approach is to treat the entire affair as an audition. In other words, find ways for interviewees to demonstrate their abilities in real time. It’s the ideal way to compare actual performance in critical skills with other prospects.

For example, musicians trying to join an orchestra or band should play a given piece on their instrument. Draftees in NFL and NBA try-outs (known as “Combines”) actually perform physical drills on the field.

In the corporate world, Google and other tech companies ask prospects to write code. McKinsey & Co. famously poses an unstructured problem for the prospect to reveal their best methods. Some companies require individuals to work alongside a team for a day. Other firms prompt them for solutions to case studies relevant to actual projects.

If you find yourself unable to craft such interviews, try using audio and videotape recordings. Ask each prospect to perform a typical task. Then, review the recording as a team to undertake an impartial comparison.

Unfortunately, most companies don’t bother. The creative challenge is too much, so they use no more than a nebulous test: “If mi spirit tek to dem or not.”

If You Are the Interviewee

On the other side of the table, you can turn the conversation into more of an audition.

Start by being prepared to show them your intentions. With whatever information you have, walk in with a mid-term plan of action to address the key issues.

As you share your plan, and its underlying assumptions, ask the interviewers to correct your data and add new facts. Use clarifying questions to uncover the true meaning, then adjust your plan in the moment based on this new input. Doing so reveals the flexible approach you take to solving difficult problems using scarce data. It’s as if they are looking over the shoulder of a composer masterfully creating a new melody.

In this way, you transform the conversation from a pre-prejudiced chat into a real-time, problem-solving session.  Plus, you learn something about your new manager’s level of expertise, engagement and EQ.

As you may imagine, in such a scenario, both sides win. The biased, old-style interview is replaced by an experience which produces fresh information everyone needs.


Francis Wade is the author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity, a keynote speaker and a management consultant. Missed a column? To receive a free download with articles from 2010-2017, send email to



When Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals Produce Poor Performance


If you lead an organization you may have asked yourself: what is the effect of setting big goals? Most leaders know that such objectives can be empowering in some circumstances but produce the opposite result in others. If so, some recent research might help the next time you sit down with a subordinate to set performance targets.

The management bestseller “Built to Last” by James Collins and Jerry Porras coined a phrase that is now used widely: BHAG, a “Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal.”

Most Jamaican executives have heard the term in the past and try to use stretch goals to awaken their organization from stale, static patterns. Once enlivened, breakthroughs become possible.

As a result, managers who have accepted the idea, encourage employees to commit to difficult goals.

Some push hard, using the force of their personality to get direct reports to acquiesce. Sales managers, for example, try to inspire their people to leave their comfort zones to accomplish big revenue targets, sometimes refusing to take “No” for an answer. Their occasional success leads them to repeat the tactic as often as they can, especially with fresh recruits.

However, new studies show that there are actually two different kinds of goals which should be set. Gary Latham from the University of Toronto has studied the question for the past three decades, concluding that it’s easy to set goals which end up doing more harm than good. Here are the strategies he recommends to avoid this problem.

Strategy 1 – Create targets which are not too hard, but not too easy
Scientists call it the Goldilocks Effect. The most effective goals need to be challenging enough to get someone’s attention, but not so difficult that they believe it’s impossible and therefore give up. Leaders must calibrate targets carefully.
For example, in the 1930’s, Manley and Bustamante didn’t immediately strive for the objective of complete independence. While they probably saw it as the ultimate objective, they took their time. The Jamaican people were shepherded through a long struggle which started with earning the right to form trade unions. It continued through the formation of political parties and the fight for Universal Adult Suffrage which eventually led to self-rule.
In retrospect, their strategy of taking one step at a time was probably best. It’s a lesson for all managers who want employees to produce extraordinary results, and it happens to be supported by empirical research. Don’t ask for “too much, too soon” or its opposite: “too little, too late”.

Strategy 2 – Distinguish outcomes from learning
In Latham’s work, he further distinguishes between “outcome targets” and “learning goals”. The former relate to end-results, such as a salesperson’s total sales per month. They are easy to understand and define because in the end, measurable accomplishment counts the most in any business.
However, managers are not usually aware of his major finding: outcome targets are only suitable for employees who have mastered their jobs.
By contrast, most employees are still developing critical abilities. His research recommends a different approach for this cohort: the use of “learning goals.” These are defined as targets which are linked to the acquisition of new knowledge or skills. They focus employees on “discovering, mastering, or implementing effective strategies, processes, or procedures necessary to perform a task.”
For example, new salespeople barely understand their product, the market, or required sales tactics. They should concentrate on setting learning goals related to mastering the fundamentals of their specific craft.
Latham’s work shows that managers who fail to make the distinction court failure, producing frustration and anxiety. In the worst case, people end up blaming themselves, then quitting, experiencing a drop in self-esteem. They have no idea that their manager should have explored an alternative.

Strategy 3 – Shifting Expectations
The above finding indicates a level of nuance most organizations don’t realize. Instead, those who employ salespeople often kick off the year with over-the-top “Rah Rah” sessions. They are entertaining but do little more than produce hype.
What’s a better choice if you are a manager? Skip the use of such blunt, short-term instruments, and train yourself to understand the two different kinds of targets. With this skill, you can set learning goals, look for the early warning signs of employee maturity, then shift your approach to targeting outcomes at just the right moment.
If you commit yourself to developing these surgical skills, you won’t get stuck on the one-size-fits-all thinking which permeates companies and demotivates employees. Instead, it may be the key to moving each of your direct reports to higher levels of performance.

Francis Wade is the author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity, a keynote speaker and a management consultant. Missed a column? To receive a free download with articles from 2010-2017, send email to