Reducing bias in recruitment: Why the phrase ‘good fit’ should always be challenged

by Professor Binna Kandola, co-founder and senior partner, Pearn Kandola

Have you ever heard someone describe an interviewee as a ‘good fit’ for the team?

I’m sure you probably have. You might even have used it yourself. It’s something intangible – difficult to describe and almost impossible to measure – but the idea of a ‘good fit’ can have a significant impact on which candidates are successful during a recruitment process.

Forming an opinion of someone that’s based on how well you think they’ll fit into an existing team or organisation is a dangerous practice though. Because, at its core, the idea of a ‘good fit’ is largely driven by bias. Instead of judging a candidate on their experience and qualifications, recruiters are making decisions based on stereotypical assumptions that often stem from their gender, ethnicity or nationality.

It’s vital that we understand how this is allowed to happen. In order to stamp bias out of the recruitment process, we need to know why interviewers may – consciously or unconsciously – assign different attributes to certain candidates and categorise them in line with stereotypes.

Most importantly though, we need to understand how interviewers use these stereotypes to decide which candidates are most likely to ‘fit’ their organisation.

Attraction theory: why we rely on ‘fit’

The interview setting encompasses a large amount of the territory that, over the years, psychological research and attraction theories have sought to explain. Many theories point to the notion that we are drawn to people who we perceive as being like us. This attraction can be based on factors such as personal interests, education and experience, but gender, age, race, as well as other factors, play a part too. They are obvious markers of difference that can be used to perceive whether someone is like us.

Perceived similarity is just as important as actual similarity. In an unstructured interview with untrained interviewers, what the selectors  gather from someone when we first meet them and subsequently presume about their personality is often the only way to form an opinion on a prospective candidate. This is because there simply isn’t enough time to gauge whether or not our perception matches reality.

As a result, interviewers can often find themselves relying on the idea of ‘fit’.

Why is looking for a ‘good fit’ so problematic?

While it’s something that many organisations say they value when judging candidates, the concept of a ‘good fit’ is a slippery one. We often know exactly what we’re looking for but struggle to communicate the idea to others because it is essentially an emotional judgement. It’s the subtle, instinctive feeling you have when you recognise that someone shares your values and interests.

Employing what we know about perceived similarities though, using ‘fit’ to assess whether or not a candidate will suit an organisation’s culture clearly carries connotations of race and gender. Some inexperienced interviewers will judge a candidate based on how similar they are to themselves, as opposed to assessing them objectively. If an interviewer feels that a candidate is incredibly different from them, their feeling towards that candidate will often be less warm.

How can ‘fit’ affect the interview process?

How warmly an interviewer feels about a candidate affects the way they respond and interpret their answers. If they have a positive opinion, an interviewer might display positive non-verbal signals such as smiling, discussing more social topics, showing an interest in the candidate or sitting closer to them. On the other hand, if they believe ‘fit’ is lacking, there might be more negative signals, such as errors in speech, hesitation or reduced eye contact. In turn, this non-verbal negative feedback can have a detrimental effect on the candidate. Untrained interviewers also place more weight on negative information from BAME candidates-in other words they seem to be looking for reasons to reject them.

How does ‘fit’ affect BAME recruitment in particular?

Despite the fact that it is clearly a judgement based on stereotypes, the idea of a ‘good fit’ has a significant impact on the biases shown by interviewers when it comes specifically to BAME recruitment.

In some cases, candidates can even be rejected as a result of the occupations typically associated with their racial group. For example, the qualities associated with sales occupations are more closely aligned with white people, who are stereotypically perceived to be sociable, whereas the qualities of an engineer are more closely aligned with Asians, who are stereotypically expected to be good at maths.

Understandably, these stereotypes can have a significant impact on the confidence and wellbeing of minority candidates.

Taking action

There are no excuses for such poor selection processes, so interviewers should treat the notion of a ‘good fit’ very carefully; if not dismiss it altogether. As I have mentioned several times, the key issue with interviews is the lack of skill in carrying them out. Training in interviewing is essential, therefore. Providing awareness about bias is good but the interviewers will still lack the skills of how to do their job effectively.

The recruitment process should be a measurable one, whereby candidates are judged against a detailed competency framework, instead of whether they would gel with an organisation on a personality level. Once you’ve mastered your biases and conducted a fair, objective interview, you can concentrate on creating a more inclusive environment for those candidates that ultimately join your team; one in which everyone ‘fits’. But, ultimately, if the term ‘good fit’ is heard in future, do challenge it’s use in the workplace.

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