Cognitive bias: Define and mitigate the seed of unconscious hiring


Unconscious, cognitive bias in hiring refers to accidental, unintentional, very subtle and completely unconscious cognitive patterns. They are perspectives, reflections and filtering mechanisms and essential tools saving you from having to re-evaluate and contextualise every piece of information you receive about a candidate. They can also be negative influences in your mind, distorting your perceptions and altering responses to new people and new situations.

A whole body of cognitive psychology and neuroscience research shows that our unconscious biases can often lead us to focus only on things we believe are important (Kahneman, Cialdini, 2016). Without us even knowing it, we may be shutting out the very people we need in our businesses because we are not testing the parameters of our own cognitive box.


Cognitive bias when hiring – examples

When left to our own devices, the chances of hiring the wrong person increases significantly. 50% of hires fail. When our cognitive bias gets the better of us, the following hiring mistakes are almost inevitable:

  • We hire people like us because we assume people like us our better (bias of similarity or in-group bias, out group bias, or self-serving bias).
  • We tend to conform to vague definitions of business culture fit because we do not want to challenge or disrupt established team norms or accepted rules of behaviour (Group think).
  • We tend to follow our gut feel because we are just too busy (and our minds are perhaps too full of other matters) to question our assumptions about people (biases of expedience or availability bias, confirmation bias, Halo effect).
  • We tend to believe that experience is more important than capability and potential because our deeply held belief is that experience (not capability) predicts high performance (biases of experience or Fundamental Attribution Error, False Consensus Effect, Illusion of Transparency effect).
  • We tend to hire people in our network (or connected to someone we know) because we believe closer is safer or better (bias of distance or Temporal discounting, Affective Forecasting).

Ultimately, subject hiring is much more about the hiring manager than it is about the candidate / future employee. When we are left unchecked; and without evidence to back our hiring decisions, we shut out diversity of all kinds and revert back to what we know and what we think is important. This means that when the hiring manager does not view hiring as important or critical to future team performance, it is very likely that they will not view the people they hire as important either.


How we hire can either blind us or open us up to new opportunities and truly remarkable people. People are dynamic and complex. Hiring for cultural fit often lacks objectivity and definition and leads to biased candidate selections that hurt diversity and team mix.

A hiring process that strives for perfection, will lead to disappointment. Learning from hiring failures leads to breakthroughs and often illuminates solutions to problems we never saw. Doing the same thing over and over again will lead to bad hires and dysfunctional behaviour further down the line.

Embrace disagreement, encourage people to challenge your thoughts, decisions and assumptions. Counteract cognitive bias by engineering productive debate and seek objective evidence on individual capability and team skills.

If you are hiring at the moment, and want to know if you are under the influence of your own cognitive bias (see effective recruitment), tick or cross the following list to cross check your prevailing behavioural patterns:

  • I am over-confident in my views about other people and their capabilities.
  • I value someone’s competencies of equal worth based upon how I feel towards them.
  • I favour the norm unless I am incentivised to change.
  • I tend to anchor my beliefs on my past references / experiences and / or based one piece of information that may or may not be valid.
  • I seek out opinions and facts that support my own beliefs and hypotheses.
  • I favour ideas I’ve already invested time and money in.
  • I tend to align to the opinions of the group
  • I overvalue the opinions of senior leaders.
  • I tend to believe that other people support my point of view.

For related blogs – see talent management Sydney and team management skills.