The other day at work, I attended an "unconscious bias" training, which is something we launched last year and are rolling out to managers, and people who interview, across Zillow Group to improve our already excellent corporate culture. I learned a lot from the session and will probably write a future post entirely on the subject of unconscious bias. The point of the session is to make us aware of the ways that we unconsciously bring stereotypes to work, especially into interviews. Recognizing your own bias is incredibly important, both personally and for the organization, because even the most well-meaning person is biased; as the trainer put it, it's how our brains take shortcuts to interpret information. Every company should roll out this training to ensure they're hiring the best people for the role, not the people most similar to them.

One thing I learned from our training was that the more open-ended the task or assessment, the more bias enters into the equation. So for example, if you walk into a candidate interview and just chit-chat, you are much more likely to reach a biased conclusion about the candidate's qualifications (i.e., you are more likely to hire someone just like you). Instead, you should go into an interview with a clear set of pre-arranged questions, and consistently stick to those questions every time you interview someone for that position.

During the training, the group discussed the popular "airport test," which many companies rely on (formally or informally) in their assessment of candidates: whether you'd be able to handle being stuck in an airport with the person you're interviewing for an extended period of time. This test has a few other names--"no jerks," "supermarket test," (would you go over and say hello or turn and run?)--but essentially, the litmus test is if you answer "yes," you could probably work well with that person.

I don't like this test (nor did the unconscious bias expert who was moderating our session). I think it's misguided, and here's why:

Work isn't social by definition; I didn't accept the job at Zillow Group to expand my social network, to be popular, or to make friends. I accepted it because of the mission, the leadership, the culture and the opportunity to help build a massive company that is changing a huge industry. I'd much rather go to bat with someone who feels the same way, even if we're not really friends, because we're meant to be a team. We're not a fraternity or social club, and we're certainly not a family. You don't performance-manage out family members, and you rarely do so to your friends, but you need to be able to do that at work. Leading with the social fit or calling a company culture "familial" will inevitably put you in a position where your judgment is clouded by emotion.

I remember one employee that we hired because we all just really liked him. He was absolutely someone I'd want to be stuck in an airport with--he was hilarious--but we realized early on that he wasn't the right fit for the company. Because we all liked him so much, it took us six months longer than it should have to let him go. He's now thriving at another company, so we were both better off after parting ways. But because we were prioritizing social fit over who would be best for the role, we avoided making the right call for the business and ultimately, for the individual.

Finding people who are not only qualified but also exhibit attributes of the core values of the company should be the top priority throughout the interview process. For us, that means exhibiting ownership, being a team player, loving to win and doing the right thing in the process. My dismissal of the airport test doesn't mean I discourage making friends at work--I've found great friends in colleagues throughout my career. My advice to interviewers is aim for "core value" fit, and if you'd be okay getting stuck in an airport with them, that's a bonus.

Published on: Apr 5, 2017