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What Is Attribution Bias – And How Can Recruiters Avoid It?

Alice Watts
Alice Watts May 24, 2021
Attribution Bias

To hire the best talent for your organisation, it is important to avoid bias within the recruitment process. Diverse and inclusive companies have higher levels of collaboration, employee satisfaction and innovation – creating an environment that encourages strong, dedicated performance.

There are several different types of unconscious bias that can manifest themselves within the hiring process, to the detriment of all. Being aware of these biases helps organisations to critically review and improve their practices. This article will explore attribution bias – and how to tackle it within your recruitment.

What Is Attribution Bias?

Attribution is how we cognitively determine the cause(s) of the behaviour of ourselves and others. We deem the cause(s) to be either internal (due to characteristics or personality) or external (down to situation or circumstance).

Attribution bias refers to when we make assumptions about the role internal factors play in behaviour – attributing certain behaviours to individual disposition rather than the situation or environment. This bias can embed itself and taint perception of all future interactions and behaviours exhibited by the individual.

This type of bias is characterised by a perceptual error – without the full details of an occurrence, we seek to draw conclusions, using previous experience and associations to assist. Our perception of input creates our own subjective realities. We often use these, balanced with objective input, to judge and interpret actions. If the constructed reality is dominant or distorted from the objective reality, this can lead to illogical interpretation, inaccurate judgements and irrationality.

Attribution bias is a cognitive bias, which means it is present and embedded within our behaviours and society. It impacts our thought processes, impacting our judgement and decision making. We will all experience and exhibit attribution bias throughout our lives.

It is an unconscious bias, which means that individuals are not aware they exhibit its tendencies, often even if they self-reflect. An attribution bias may even run contrary to someone’s conscious beliefs. It is, therefore, important to invest in educating your recruitment department about attribution bias and seek to actively tackle its emergence.

Types of Attribution Bias

Attribution Bias

There are several different types of attribution bias:

Fundamental attribution bias – Attributing the behaviour of others as down to internal characteristics, but defending our own actions as being a result of environmental factors. This is characterised by a more forgiving attitude towards the self and a failure to consider the external circumstances of others.

Self-serving bias – A self-serving bias is the tendency to interpret personal successes as due to internal characteristics (rather than good fortune or situational factors) and failures as down to the impacts of external circumstances, thus absolving responsibility.

Hostile attribution bias – A hostile attribution bias causes individuals to interpret ambiguous behaviour as being hostile or malignant, instead of benign. In the extreme, it can cause severe insecurity and irrationality.

Confirmation bias – The tendency to seek information that confirms our own views and disregard or discredit any input that presents a challenge to that perception. This can be extremely harmful to effective, informed decision making, as only self-serving data is weighed in the process.

Negative impression bias – The tendency to focus upon negative information about others and over-emphasise its continued impact or presence. It also refers to over-emphasising the negative traits, actions or characteristics of an individual because of previous hurt.

False consensus bias - Attributing our own thought process and reactions to others. This leads to judgment according to our own intentions and motivations, not theirs.

Why Attribution Bias Matters When You Are Hiring

Attribution Bias

If attribution bias is pronounced within your hiring process, assumption will largely be responsible for creating your impression of prospective employees. This will lead to distorted judgements about the skills and competencies of certain individuals and could prevent the best candidates from rising to the top of the cohort.

As companies rely upon identifying talent and placing people in the correct roles, attribution bias can have a negative impact upon the efficacy of your organisation. It can lead to unfounded decisions that ultimately impact department and/or organisational performance and employee turnover.

When Reviewing Applications

Attribution bias can particularly be an issue during the initial application stage. When sifting through numerous CVs, recruiters are liable to read certain details and attribute them to personal characteristics, as they seek to build a tangible profile of the individual.

As CVs do not fully indicate the skills or potential of a candidate, making judgements based upon reading into the information provided can lead to missed opportunities. At this point in time, a candidate cannot address formed perceptions of their actions or motivations - so attribution bias can rule out strong candidates due to the sway of false hypotheses.

During the Interview Stage

In interviews, attribution bias can cause recruiters to make judgments without interrogating their validity. It can cause interviewers to read into and extrapolate out the answers a candidate gives, fictionalising their implications without possessing the full picture of the referenced situation or occurrence.

The good news is, however, that an awareness of this bias incites further questions, to achieve clarity and an accurate, informed impression.

How Can Recruiters Avoid Attribution Bias?

Attribution Bias

Being aware of the existence of attribution bias – and educating your recruitment department - is the first step towards tackling its presence within your recruitment cycles. There are then practical process steps which can be taken to lessen its impact upon hiring.

In early-stage recruitment, do not rely upon CVs to shortlist candidates as this will encourage unconscious bias within recruiters - to supplement incomplete information and aid perception. Seek to use work samples, pre-employment assessment tests or review the outputs from a set task. This will help to avoid attribution bias, as the focus is upon a current work product rather than a subjective reading into past achievements.

During interviews, ask behaviour-based questions to delve into a candidate’s true behavioural motivations and preferences. This will help to deconstruct any unfounded assumptions that may have been made about character.

It is also important to avoid attribution bias in order to smooth the transition of new hires into established teams. Within organisational teams, cultivate an approach that questions the external factors that may have contributed towards a colleague’s actions before making harmful assumptions. This will help to create a tolerant and supportive work environment.

The recognition and consideration of external factors can also help to establish controls to lessen their impact within the workplace.

An organisation that encourages effective communication, establishing the appropriate channels and creating an open and supportive culture, is less likely to be plagued by attribution bias in colleague, management and client relationships.

Alice Watts
Alice Watts May 24, 2021

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