Unconscious Bias: What the NFL and NBA Drafts Can Teach Us about Hiring

Imagine you’re a 20 year old super-athlete. You just finished up your senior season playing at the top level of your sport. You can run faster than anyone you’ve ever met, lift more weight than professional bodybuilders and have the intelligence to process and anticipate the movements of 21 other similarly gifted athletes on a football field. You’re looking ahead to a million dollar payday in a few months and you’re feeling on top of the world. Then you walk into a room where the men in charge of determining your future look you in the eyes and ask you if you’re gay.

This is precisely what happened to Derius Guice at this year’s NFL scouting combine.

In March, the National Football League hosts an event called the “NFL scouting combine.” At this event, held every year in Indianapolis, a little over 300 former college football players are invited to showcase their skills in front of NFL scouts. The goal for the players is simple, run fast, jump high, lift a superhuman amount of weight, and prove that they’re ready to be drafted into the NFL and play in the pros.

Every team has the opportunity to schedule a formal, sit-down interview with any player at the combine. Typically, each team will meet with somewhere between 10 and 25 players before the week-long event is complete. Some teams look to assess a player’s ability to quickly understand and communicate strategic concepts. They’ll have an athlete draw and explain plays from his college’s playbook, or ask about how they would respond on the field in certain circumstances. Other teams take more of a behavioral approach, asking players how they’ve responded to adversity, injuries or tough losing stretches. Some may even ask how they would respond to theoretical struggles when they arrive in the league.

Unfortunately, many teams also seem to purposefully try to upset players in the room in an effort to judge their ability to keep calm in the face of adversity. This is what happend to Guice when he stepped into that interview room.

In a bizarre way, the teams are trying to generate an emotional reaction in order to disqualify a player due to a perceived lack of emotional stability. Players have been asked about committing hypothetical crimes, family histories and even sexual preferences, the type of questions that would get any normal corporation in serious legal trouble if these questions were a part of a normal interview process.

For the players, these kinds of questions are not only offensive, they’re completely unfair. How would you react if you heard that kind of question in a job interview - of course you would be upset! These questions only underline previous assumptions about a player. You think he’s a hothead who will lose his temper when pushed about his rough childhood? Asking a question about that will only reinforce what you already know, rather than discovering new or interesting skills or attributes. There are no surprises in an NFL combine interview; only bizarre questions that reconfirm biases.

What can we learn from the NFL combine interviews?

The NFL combine is a fascinating case study in talent evaluation. With a static set of challenges to complete, athletes look to be measured fairly against their competition for a job. But of course, the process has its weaknesses. In the mid-90’s a player named Mike Mamoula decided he would train specifically for the tests, not just for the football skills. He showed up to Indianapolis in 1995 and blew all the other competitors out of the water. He ended up getting drafted with the seventh pick in the first round and went on to have a spectacularly mediocre career in the NFL. In his case, the evaluation process failed, because he understood and exploited the weaknesses inherent in the talent evaluation and interview process.

Unconscious Bias in Interviewing

Unconscious biases are the shortcuts one’s brain uses to make decisions quickly. As people, we have a tendency, when faced with limited information about a person, to map onto him or her our experiences working with people we feel are similar.

Think about the interviews you’ve conducted in your career. What assumptions did you have about job candidates before they walked into the interview room? Had you reviewed their resumes? Or looked at their LinkedIn profiles? How many conclusions had you already drawn about them, their skills or their ability to succeed in the role?

It’s impossible to totally eliminate bias from your interviewing process. Fortunately, there are some simple tools and techniques to help you reduce the role of bias when evaluating talent. And even more fortunately, there’s another sports league, besides the NFL, that can teach us about those techniques!

Basketball to the Rescue

Daryl Morey, the General Manager of the Houston Rockets, sees talent evaluation differently from his NFL counterparts. Morey has always been referred to as a “data guy,” and his evaluation processes have helped him assemble a team that’s currently in first place in the NBA’s Western Conference.  Long ago, he recognized that the traditional methods scouts used to evaluate players were rife with opportunities for bias to sneak into their evaluations.

In Michael Lewis’ book, the Undoing Project, Lewis interviews Morey about his struggle to eliminate bias from his staff’s talent evaluation process:

The problem was magnified by the tendency of talent evaluators—Morey included—to favor players who reminded them of their younger selves. “My playing career is so irrelevant to my career,” (Morey) said. “And still I like guys who beat the shit out of people and cheat the rules and are nasty. Bill Laimbeer types. Because that’s how I played.” You saw someone who reminded you of you, and then you looked for the reasons why you liked him.

Morey recognized the role that unconscious bias was playing in his front office’s process and set out to fix it. Here are some of the things he did:

  • Banned Nicknames -  After one nickname led to the staff’s constantly joking about a player’s being out of shape, they passed on him in the draft and saw him become a perennial all-star for another team.
  • Reduced the role of private workouts – Morey realized that a season’s worth of data was much more valuable than how well a player performed during a 30-minute workout in an unfamiliar gym.
  • Forbid intraracial comparisons – If a scout wanted to compare a college player to an NBA pro, he would have to compare him to a player of another race. Lewis writes about the change in the book: “A funny thing happened when you forced people to cross racial lines in their minds: They ceased to see analogies. Their minds resisted the leap.”

Resisting the Leap

Professional sports talent evaluation has a lot to teach us about our own interview processes. One bad decision by the Houston Rockets costs their organization millions of dollars in lost opportunities, team successes and overall fan interest. They have the highest stakes and need to take the utmost precautions to ensure they’re making smart decisions with clear eyes.

There are a lot of things you can do to reduce the role of unconscious bias in your own organization’s hiring process. The first, most important step, is to encourage your team members to take an unconscious bias training to examine the specific “leaps” that their minds take when confronted with limited information. Short of taking a class, there are free online resources prepared by researchers at Harvard University’s “Project Implicit” that allow you to test your own social biases online.

In the context of an interview, there are some small, but hugely important things you can do before, during and after an interview to reduce the role of unconscious bias in your talent evaluation process:

Before the Interview:

  • Include job candidates with uncommon backgrounds,

  • Plan ahead to ensure consistent structure and questions,

  • Ensure that all interviewers understand and agree on the definitions of the skills they’re evaluating.

During the Interview

  • Avoid unnecessary “small talk” on unrelated topics,

  • Allow yourself to be surprised by uncommon backgrounds or skill sets that allow the person to be successful in the role,

  • Validate assumptions about the candidate while they’re still in the room by asking follow-up questions.

After the Interview

  • Write and record notes immediately before you discuss your thoughts about a candidate with other interviewers

The next time you and your team set out to hire for a new role, take a moment and see if you can use some of these “bias-reduction” ideas. Or see if you can come up with some of your own rules that more closely align with the talent you’re evaluating. The more you build these questions into the front end of your talent process, the less likely you’ll be to miss out on future all-stars.

 

Improv for Interviewers - A FastCompany Interview

Dave Collins, Founder and CEO of Oak and Reeds, was interviewed in Fast Company on ways to integrate improv into a company's interview process. Below is an excerpt of his thoughts (you can read the full interview here):

Brainstorm the questions you need to ask to get the information you need about the candidate beforehand. Have those ready, but also be prepared to go off-script if the opportunity arises. Collins uses a "question-asking funnel," where the interview starts with very broad questions, then more specific, probing questions are used as various lines of discussion develop. The key is to keep the conversation fluid, listen intently, and to be ready to follow an interesting thread when it emerges, he says.
"What I like to teach in improv is called ‘color and advance,’" he says. Use an open-ended question to get the color that the person will share in the story, then use an "advance" question to drill down into the specific skills about which you need to know.