A Tale of Biases

JoAnna Bennett

JoAnna Bennett, O’Brien Communications Group

9 August 2018

Patrick Samuels was heading to work on a cold, rainy, mid-April morning. He’d started the day like any typical day, with a large cup of Hazelnut coffee in his US Airforce travel mug, to which he added two heaping spoonfuls of sugar and a splash of heavy cream. Patrick had joined an ROTC program back in college and given the Airforce four years in return for a college education. Since then, he’d been working at Young & Younger Insurance, climbing up the ranks to an office and an SVP title. On this April day, he was reporting for eight more hours of resumé reading, along with scheduling and conducting interviews for a new, entry-level, data-entry position.

Two interviews were on his calendar that morning. Patrick hoped one of the candidates would stand out so he could make an offer and end the project. But it wasn’t looking good. The first candidate was 10 minutes late. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and gulped the last sip of his coffee. Before he could open his eyes, he heard a knock at his door. He looked up to see a young man.

“I apologize for my tardiness, Mr. Samuels. I’m not one for excuses, but it’s been a difficult morning full of isolated and almost ironic issues. I’m a very prompt and timely employee. I’m sure my references will attest to that.”

Taken aback by the candidate’s honesty and accountability, Patrick decided to grant him the interview and cut him some slack when it came to his late arrival. The decision proved to be fruitful. Not only was this guy easy to talk to, his father was in the Airforce and Patrick felt he could really trust him.

The next interviewee, a young woman, was 15 minutes early. She sat in the hallway for twenty-five minutes and watched through the glass as Patrick laughed and carried on with a gentleman in his office. Patrick noticed she seemed to get agitated while she waited — looking at her watch and fidgeting in her chair. He wanted to be mindful of her time, so he ended his interview with the young man, told him he’d be in touch, and invited the young woman to come in.

Her resumé was the best he’d seen for this position. He knew from their conversation that she’d recently moved to a new home, just down the road — so her location and the hours would be a perfect fit. But Patrick wasn’t sure. He had a strange feeling about her because she seemed to be very distracted, and it was difficult to really connect with her.

So Patrick did what most people in his position would do: he hired candidate one. He let two biases get the best of him, in-group bias and the illusion of transparency. In Patrick’s evaluation of candidate one, he prematurely bonded with him. They were both part of the Airforce family; therefore, Patrick felt a false sense of trust and comradery. When it came to the second candidate, Patrick didn’t know it, but she had to be back at home at a specific time because her husband’s physical therapist was going to arrive and needed to discuss his care in the new house. It was a meeting she couldn’t miss and couldn’t reschedule.

Patrick not only overestimated his ability to know candidate two and her reason for fidgeting, he also threw some actor-observer bias in there — thinking her actions were focused more on her character, and less on her situation.

We’re all potential Patricks because we’re all subject to our biases, conscious and unconscious. And while gut reactions are often the most reliable, they’re never the most informed.

Be patient, question everything, and evaluate thoroughly. Your time will be rewarded.