How asking about a candidate’s hobbies makes us wrongfully hire based on stereotypes

Let me start by making a confession.

I also talk about hobbies in the job interviews that I conduct for Equalture. I don’t ask candidates about their hobbies though – instead, I always introduce myself by sharing my own hobbies. 

However, that doesn’t make the situation any better, because introducing yourself that way can still make your candidates feel they should introduce themselves the same way. The good thing though is that I already thought about some alternative ways to get to know a candidate – but before sharing those ideas, let’s first talk about hobbies and biases.

The Gamer, The Beer-Lover & The Traveler

I am going to generalize and exaggerate a little bit here, but I hope that makes you realize even more how naive and biased it actually is to ask a candidate about their hobbies. 

Let’s imagine you’re interviewing three candidates in a row, of which everyone has shared their hobbies with you. The first one tells you that they love gaming. The second one tells you that they love going out for a beer – in fact, this beer-lover can tell you all about it. And the third one loves traveling – their biggest dream is traveling around the world for a year. 

You may call it exaggerating. Or stereotyping. But still, I bet that the first things that popped into your mind about these three candidates are the following (at least for most people who read this blog):

  • Gamer: ”Probably an introvert and individualist. Most engineers also love gaming.”
  • Beer-Lover: ”Probably an extrovert who loves to be around people. After all, you don’t drink beer alone, right?
  • Traveler: ”Probably an adventurous person who can very well adapt to different environments.”

So, the gamer is an individualist and an introvert. The beer-lover is an extrovert. And the traveler is as adaptable as a human being can be. 

It might be right for some people. But I bet it’s also incorrect for a lot of people. Let me share some examples of people I know:

  • Our CTO loves gaming, and he’s one of the most extroverted people in our entire team;
  • I know someone who brews beer, and is definitely not extroverted;
  • One of my best friends spent over a year living on the other side of the world on her own, and is very much aware of the fact that she’s not very adaptable or flexible.

These are just some examples. We also tend to think that people who love to read are more introverted, that people who sport often are disciplined, and that people who love to cook are creative and people-pleasers. 

It’s often wrong, but we simply can’t help making these assumptions. For this blog, our amazing Content Marketer Anete sent me three pictures of herself. Because she loves beer, she loves hiking, and she loves traveling. But she’s not like any stereotype you’d link to that. (Thanks Anete!)

What’s going wrong here: Stereotyping Bias & Confirmation Bias

There are three reasons why most Hiring Managers ask candidates about their hobbies:

  • They use the question as an ice-breaker;
  • They try to reveal someone’s skills and passions;
  • They try to assess someone’s fit with the company culture. 

It actually doesn’t matter which of the three reasons to ask this question applies to you. Because the consequence of asking this question will be the exact same

Whether we like it or not, our frame of reference instantly starts putting labels on candidates, based on their hobbies. That’s because our frame of reference, which is fed by our biases, unconsciously links hobbies to transferrable skills, behaviors, and personality traits. 

This is what we call our Stereotyping Bias – a cognitive bias that makes us create a generalized belief about a particular category of people. For example: Gamers are introverted, and travelers are adaptable.

And stereotyping isn’t the only bias arising from asking about someone’s hobbies. Once we have formed our opinion, right after a candidate shares their hobbies (based on our stereotypes), we let another bias take over control: Confirmation Bias

Confirmation Bias is a type of cognitive bias that makes us favor information that confirms our existing perception of someone, rather than information that goes against our perception. In other words: without us even being aware of it, we tend to ask candidates questions that most likely will confirm our perception of this candidate. So, if someone just told you that they love reading or gaming, we won’t ask any questions that can prove that someone is actually extroverted. We only ask questions that will help us confirm that someone is introverted. 

And even if you’d wish to get some valuable insights from this question..

That probably won’t happen.

Candidates aren’t honest about their hobbies. And you also can’t blame them

Did you ever try to google ‘How to answer interview questions about hobbies’? If you didn’t, maybe you should. The internet explodes from articles explaining to candidates what hobbies to mention in a job interview, in order to get the job. And what hobbies to avoid mentioning.

So, in case you actually were hoping to get to know your candidates, you most likely won’t as a result of social desirability

How Equalture can help + An alternative way to get to know candidates during an interview

We help companies get to know their candidates’ skills, behavior, and personality in an objective way, rather than having to guess this through an interview. We have built a library of scientifically-validated gamified assessments, which candidates are asked to complete right at the start of the hiring process (this takes around 15 minutes). This ensures a first impression based on science, instead of wrong assumptions based on someone’s hobbies (or whatever activities they mention in order to hopefully get the job).

After receiving those results, companies already have a lot of insights into their candidates. They no longer have to use the interview to find out whether someone is individualistic or collaborative. Or whether someone is more flexible or habitual. Or whether someone is a perfectionist or not. 

So, what to ask candidates during the interview instead? Try asking situational questions, and try to ask similar questions to all of your candidates. These could be questions related to the job your candidates are applying for or a candidate’s previous job. 

Want to try a game yourself?

A visual of one of the games that is non-cheatable and measures a specific skill/personality trait.

My lesson learned after writing this post? I will start introducing myself by telling something about my characteristics, instead of my hobbies. And if the candidate then still mentions their hobbies, I consciously remind myself of the fact that someone’s hobbies are absolutely no indicator of someone’s fit with the job or company.

Charlotte Melkert Co-Founder and CEO of Equalture in Portrait picture

Cheers, Charlotte

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