Until I read the “Smarter Living” column in a recent  New York Times, I did not know there was such a thing as “unconscious bias.” But after reading about it, I knew I had some learning to do. Not only for my own take-aways for “smarter living” in my personal life, but also to explore this issue relative to how I serve my clients and candidates alike when doing searches for top CFO talent.

Article author Tim Herrera explains, “Unconscious biases are shortcuts our brains take to reach certain conclusions.” They are both necessary for everyday living (because we cannot analyze every stimulus and sight we take in), and they are potentially dangerous (because if we get too cozy with our preconceptions they may come to haunt us).

Bias starts with the resume

This is a fascinating topic when it comes to the hiring process. Starting with reading a resume, what do we immediately deduce about someone we have never met? Many things! We start forming conclusions based on where someone went to school, the level of education they achieved, what companies they worked at, and what accomplishments they chose to convey. These are all reasonable things to consider when deciding whether we want to meet someone. But how many of our conclusions come from an unconscious bias? How many times do we pass on a meeting because someone’s resume does not seem to fit what we may consciously or unconsciously hold as important?

Beware the big talker

The article also points to a study published on the American Psychological Association website that showed that people who talked more in working environments were perceived to be “more influential” than those who talked less. In his article, Herrera concurs: “Your brain can instinctively trust people simply because they sound as if they know what they are talking about.” And of course, “influential” goes hand-in-hand with executive presence. People with executive presence are more influential than those who lack it. The study also points out that when people are using a lot of words, those listening may not scrutinize what is said, and the listeners can be lulled into a false sense of thinking that the speaker must know what they are talking about! This issue brought to mind how many times we are sold something we really did not need. That could be a case of “unconscious bias” as well.

Power of first impression

When we meet someone for the first time, particularly in an interview situation, the potential for bias of all kinds is very high. In fact, the whole purpose of an interview from both parties’ standpoint is to determine fit. We determine fit by making judgments about one another—some of those judgments will be conscious and others unconscious. It is critical in my opinion to be keenly aware of the conclusions we make about a person, and how some of those conclusions will be influenced by unconscious bias. We can put an extreme amount of confidence in our ability to trust based on things like confidence and extroversion rather than digging into the real, factual details of a candidate’s abilities and accomplishments.

 Trust but verify

Herrera further points out that in order not to fall prey to the downside of unconscious bias, he says we should always verify the truth. In the case of hiring, we rely heavily on references. Recently, I was working on a search with a candidate and asked her for references as we were getting close to the offer stage. I was a bit worried because she already had a couple of offers and I thought her references might be a little burnt out. Truth is, she told me no one involved in the other searches has asked her for references. That is crazy. References serve a lot of purposes and we need to verify our impressions. “Trust but verify” is not a bad motto. Equally important: We should verify or un-verify any biases we have developed about the candidate.

Some people do really well in an interview. They may be a trained salesperson or full of gravitas. But do not let unconscious bias lead to hiring a stuffed shirt. Verify your opinions through thorough reference checking—both on list and off list.

I have been meeting CFOs for a long time and feel I have an ability to identify the winners, but I will always check references whether my clients ask it of me or not. Getting lulled into overconfidence from experience is just not part of the Arnold Partners way of doing business.

Would love to get your thoughts about bias and how you deal with it. Contact me at Dave@arnoldpartners.com.