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February 18, 2020

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How Jury Selection Illustrates a Fascinating Approach to Unbiased Recruiting

Watching a courtroom case unfold is an eye-opening event. What you may not realize is that jury selection illustrates a fascinating approach to unbiased recruiting. Recently I was called upon to serve as a juror on a criminal case. Of course, most people dread getting that notice in the mail. I found the experience fascinating. And one of the aspects that intrigued me most was the jury selection process, or “voir dire” as it’s called in legal circles. In fact, there are many elements involved in this vetting and interviewing model that we could incorporate into our own hiring methods. With a little creativity and modification, I believe voir dire presents us with some excellent strategies for developing an unbiased, enlightening and results-oriented approach to candidate interviews.

Voir Dire -- A Model of Unbiased Recruiting

One of the cornerstones of the American justice system is a defendant’s right to a jury trial when facing criminal charges. This right is guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as well as the laws of every state. Whenever we see legal dramas play out on film or television, they usually begin with attorneys, victims and the accused entering a packed courtroom. We’re greeted by tension in the atmosphere, the stern demeanor of a bailiff, the wise and scrutinizing face of the judge, and a row of jurors. And that’s the part we often miss -- how each member of the jury ended up there. It’s not a simple matter of responding to a summons; it’s a deliberate and methodical selection process.

Not only do I think voir dire correlates to how companies can select talent, I think it can teach companies a thing or two about how to eliminate bias from hiring. So how does it work?

First, the judge opens the proceedings by asking potential jurors about their opinions, views and backgrounds. He or she also attempts to discover whether these individuals have any pre-existing knowledge about the case itself. The questions are designed to elicit and detect any biases that may prevent the jury members from making a fair and impartial decision in the case, based solely on the evidence.

The judge in my case did even more than that, however. He took time to explain the entire process to us beforehand, helping us understand the questions and why they were being asked. He provided a wealth of context that removed any doubt or anxiety we might have about our roles.

Next, attorneys from the prosecution and defense asked similar questions, also designed to uncover experiences or characteristics that could cause a juror to favor one side over the other. In my case, each attorney asked the same questions, in the same format. They were consistent, well formulated and mutually agreed upon.

During these interviews, counselors for both parties are also permitted to excuse potential jurors through two types of challenges: peremptory challenges and challenges for cause. A peremptory challenge requires no reason. An attorney can attempt to dismiss a prospective juror who is qualified to serve yet seems likely to favor the opposing team. Lawyers cannot use a peremptory challenge to excuse candidates for the jury based on discriminating factors such as race, gender or class.

Challenges for cause get more nuanced. The most straightforward example would involve a potential juror who fails to meet the basic criteria to serve: age, residency in the jurisdiction, citizenship, ability to sit through and understand the trial, and so forth. Beyond minimum qualifications, most challenges for cause arise as the result of actual or implied biases.

  • Actual biases materialize when a candidate for the jury admits that he or she could not be impartial. Some religious faiths prevent their followers from sitting in judgment of others. An individual who expresses this belief would probably be excused for cause.
  • Implied bias is a little trickier. This type of challenge comes when potential jurors have character traits, vocations or personal experiences that make it unlikely for them remain impartial, regardless of their responses during voir dire. A good example would be a retired police officer considered for a jury that will decide a case on police brutality.

So how would a jury selection model work in hiring? I see it as a two-part process. Because voir dire is intended to weed out biases, it would apply most directly to the way we select our interviewers and decision-making committees for recruiting. However, there are also some key elements we can use for candidate selection.

Selecting Your Jury of Interviewers

Poor hiring decisions have profound impacts on business culture: low morale, waning motivation and even degradation of an employment brand. Removing bias from the hiring process is essential. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to create a jury of interviewers.

Create a decision making committee or hiring team, and then work out a series of questions (no more than 10) that you would all ask candidates. Just as attorneys during jury selection, your aim is to develop a consistent set of effective questions with a universal format for all candidates. Also consider the notion of challenging team members for cause -- noticeable biases that are actual or implied.

For instance, say a hiring manager in the group admits that she prefers to hire “people I can relate to, with an advanced education from top universities.” This would likely count as an actual bias. Having a postgraduate degree or attending a prestigious university is no guarantee of performance, ability or even a good fit with the organization’s wider culture. By ruling out other qualified applicants with different skills and academic backgrounds, this interviewer is ignoring the benefits of considering a broad range of profiles. In doing so, she risks creating a detrimental gap between the familiarity of the new hire and the best skills for the job.

You may also discover the potential for implied biases. Let’s imagine that another member of the committee is a young man from New York with a previous background in sales. Even though he oversees the accounting department for your organization, you find that nearly all of his hires are also male, never older than him, hail from the East Coast and all have prior work experience as salespeople. It’s clear that he has an implied bias, which may be costing your company the loss of better matched workers with more appropriate skill sets.

Meeting in this fashion and challenging for cause gives you the opportunity to identify and weed out biases within the group, standardize interviewing questions and create relevant evaluation criteria that everyone can agree with. This process ensures that interviewers are on the same page in determining what an ideal candidate looks like. More importantly, this strategy helps you formalize a set of checks and balances.

Jury Selection for Candidates

Naturally, candidates are not going to be grilled for interviewing biases. Their situation is unique because, in this metaphor, they’re not jurors, defendants or witnesses on the dock. Candidates aren’t potential jurors undergoing the voir dire, yet being grilled by a hiring manager can evoke the sensation of an attorney digging for dirt. And while they’re not on trial, an interview can sometimes feel like one.

In either case, the interview is a nerve-wracking experience that involves some level of uncertainty and judgment. However, my experience in jury selection taught me some valuable lessons in how to ease this process.

First, like the judge, we should open the proceedings by asking candidates about their backgrounds and views -- in this case, that means past experience, aspirations, career goals, interests, skills and accomplishments. We can also discover whether candidates have any pre-existing knowledge about the job itself. This can reveal a great deal: does the prospect understand the company mission, the role, the culture, the employment brand and so forth? Is that individual’s perception positive or negative?

As the judge in my case did, we should take the time to explain the entire process to candidates before the questions start flying, helping them understand why they’re being asked. If we provide the same level of context, we can remove any doubt or anxiety candidates might have about the position, company or hiring process.

When we finally begin asking the questions, we’ll already have a consistent format that’s carefully formulated, unbiased and agreed upon by everyone in the hiring committee. If we do our jobs correctly, we’ll easily be able to identify issues that would lead to challenges for cause. We can even uncover “biases” of sorts.

Sometimes, an abundance of experience comes with an inflexibility toward change, or habits that might not be conducive to a new industry or business atmosphere. It’s easier to teach ideal behaviors to new talent than force experienced workers to unlearn theirs.

Too often in the industry, we see recruiters homing in on job titles and keywords, all of which can be misleading. Companies have moved away from commonly accepted titles for their positions, making it difficult for a resume to accurately represent the genuine skills of the talent. In some cases, lofty and ambiguous titles don’t tell a reliable story. In other cases, overly simplified titles can mask the worker’s true strengths. As a result, some recruiters never directly test a candidate’s capabilities; they simply assume that the lack of certain keywords or titles means a risky hire.

The Verdict: Mirroring Jury Selection Can Strengthen Hiring

Selecting the perfect juror is a difficult decision for any judge or litigator. They must find individuals who can be objective, fair and collaborative. Selecting candidates, and even those who interview them, requires the same level of planning, thoughtfulness and process. When we eliminate bias from hiring, we get to the heart of what matters most: finding talent who perform at the highest levels. We expose our organizations to talent of all skills, backgrounds, aptitudes and cultures. We bolster diversity and inclusion. We spur fresh ideas and innovation. And we may even discover that what a worker may lack in terms of established skills or longevity, he or she makes up for through motivation, a willingness to learn and a drive to achieve.

Sunil Bagai
Sunil Bagai
Sunil is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, thought leader and influencer who is transforming the way companies think about and acquire talent. Blending vision, technology and business skills honed in the most innovative corporate environments, he has launched a new model for recruitment called Crowdstaffing which is being tapped successfully top global brands. Sunil is passionate about building a company that provides value to the complete staffing ecosystem including clients, candidates and recruiters.
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