Halos and Horns: Biases that inhibit you from making the best choices. 

A young lady I know within a month of joining an organization had an office fling with a married man. The fling was over as soon as it began. She, told me she didn’t do it for career advancement or even monetary gain and I’m quite bound to believe this as they were on the same organizational tier. One thing that struck me as quite interesting was even a year after the affair, she always complained of how her peers told her, her boss never took her seriously and told her peers that he can’t quite explain it but he just feels she’s here to ‘make friends’ and work comes second for her. This was despite the fact that she was over qualified for her position and consistently scored high in her performance appraisals. Seeing, that her career would never advance at that organisation, as soon as she got an offer elsewhere she left and the organization lost a valuable member of staff.

This is a classic case of the ‘horn effect or horn bias.’ This is the error one makes by forming an opinion about a person based on one aspect of that individual which then overshadows all other aspects of the individual. First impressions are a classic case of the horn bias, ever heard the phrase “you don’t get a second chance at a first impression? ” This is  based  on  the  fact  that most  individuals  attribute their initial thoughts of  you  to  your entire  being!

The horn effect and biases like it permeate our day to day interactions , be it in the workplace or outside of it  . Practitioners of HR are especially prone to these biases in executing their duties be it training , recruitment  and  placements , performance management  , employee grievances, disciplinary matters  , the list goes on and on.

Below is a list of five common biases experienced in the field of HR and ‘life’ as well as some prescriptions on how these can be overcome.

  1. Halos and Horns

    halo-angel-devil-horns-egg        The horn bias has been alluded to in the text above. Conversely, the halo bias occurs when  a positive aspect or characteristic of an individual is attributed to the entire character of an individual. One can easily make the assumption that if an employee reports for work early, then they are hardworking. However, that premise does not necessarily lead to the conclusion. What has happened is that good performance in one aspect has resulted in the assumption that the employee performs well in other aspects of their work. This bias can lead to poor and unsubstantiated recruitment decisions, promotions and demotions which would in turn affect an organisations bottom line.

  2. Primacy and  Recency

    Ever noticed how you’ll remember the beginning and the end of a speech whilst the middle part will more or less merge into one thing. Or when you’re trying to recall items on a list you’re more likely to remember the items at the very beginning and the end of the list. That is the rationale behind these particular bias. The Primacy bias occurs when an individual bases decisions on information that was presented to them at the very beginning of an event (it could be an appraisal period or an interview), conversely the recency bias occurs when an individual bases decisions on information that is presented to them at the very end of an event. The dangers of doing this are quite clear because decisions are then made on a partial information instead of the full picture.

  3. Leniency, Central Tendency  and Severity


    These particular bias are most prevalent when one is required to rate an individual. Leniency occurs when a rater scores an individual at the positive end of a scale, whilst severity occurs when a rater scores an individual at the negative end of a scale.  The central tendency bias materializes when a rater avoids any extreme judgments and just gives an individual average scores. Unlike the other biases which are predominantly unconscious these three are mostly consciously made, for example a supervisor may want to ‘punish’ an employee for something and choose to give them low scores on a performance appraisal. A supervisor may also decide that having a team with low performance appraisal scores would paint them in a negative light hence they would practice leniency or central tendency.

  4. Similar-to-me


You like people who are like you! However, that does not necessarily make them the best candidate for the job or the promotion. Greenberg , states that research has shown that when superiors rate their subordinates, the more similar the parties are, the higher rating the superior tends to give to the subordinate. Positive relationships are crucial for the workplace environment, however once the are clouded by this bias it leads to favoritism and resentment which can negatively influence an organisations bottom line.

5. Stereotypes

Stereotyping in HR, like in most other fields occurs when decisions are made based on limited attributes of the individual such as sex, ethnicity, tribe, race, religious affiliation, marital status, dressing, personal appearance and the list goes on and on. The problem with stereotypes are that they are incomplete, and in some cases even untrue! The character of an individual is based on affiliation to a group instead of individual merit. This may cause decisions to be made on untrue information, for example if an interviewer decides that they cannot hire a woman for a particular position because they believe women don’t perform well in that field. This may lead to inaccurate recruitment decisions and in certain cases discrimination law suits.

There several ways that biases and there effects can be mitigated be it the conscious or the unconscious ones.

  1.  Like the old adage goes ‘Knowledge is power’. By continuously questioning and justifying the assessments and decisions of individuals, it may force the recognition of certain biases thus aiding them to reduce them. For example, before deciding to hire an individual, ask yourself are you hiring them because they had the best qualifications and most relevant experience or because they made you laugh and remind you of a younger you?
  2. Using objective measures to asses employees and potential employees also helps to mitigate effects of bias. Implementing processes such as structured interviews instead of unstructured ones ensures that all candidates are assessed on the same job relevant qualities. Furthermore, when conducting performance appraisals implementing  Behaviorally Anchored Rating Scales (BARS) which are based on actual observable work related behaviors instead of Graphic Rating Scales which utilize scales such as “excellent, good, average, poor and very poor” which can be quite subjective.
  3. Documenting information aids in the reduction of biases. This is owing to the fact that documented information provides an objective basis for decision making [assuming that the documentation is done accurately]. Imagine conducting employee appraisals after six months, not having documented any of  your employees behavior or achievements, that’s a primacy and recency bias waiting to happen.

HR practitioners create and  influence ‘people policies’. They determine if someone will get the job that could possibly change their life and that of their loved ones; They determine performance management systems and assessments, this has an impact on people’s esteem and how they see themselves in relation to the organisation and determines the discrete effort individuals will put into place; They determine policy in place which has an effect on organizational efficiency and effectiveness. Thus, recognition and acknowledgement of factors [such as bias] that can reduce the viability of these decisions is paramount.

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