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Contrast Effect

It hides in plain sight and you won’t see the impact until after the fact. The contrast effect is a seemingly normal mindset with regards to recruiting, performance management and leadership development. Nevertheless, the impacts of this bias can result in poor data and poor decision-making. Read on to learn the definition of contrast effect, examples of this bias, and how to prevent it in recruiting for your organization.

What Is the Contrast Effect?

Contrast effect is a type of bias that occurs when comparing a candidate or employee to another employee.

Positive Versus Negative Contrast Effect

Positive contrast effect is when a candidate is rated better because previous candidates were very weak.

Negative contrast effect is when a candidate is rated worse because previous candidates were very weak.

Examples of the Contrast Effect in Action

This type of bias can be identified in recruiting processes with the employees working at your organization. Let’s look at three examples of how the contrast effect manifests itself in the workplace.

Interviewing Candidates

An interviewer may rate a charismatic speaking candidate higher than a previous candidate who was nervous simply based on their differing communication styles. The opposite can also happen. After a great interview, an interviewer may meet another candidate who doesn’t connect as well as the previous candidate with the interviewer. This results in a lower rating when comparing the candidates.

Instead of rating the candidate based on their merits, we can unconsciously compare candidates which may lead to skewed information about which candidate is the right fit for the position.

Performance Management

Manager John has two employees, Mike and Adam. John and Adam share a lot of the same interests and will often golf at the local golf course. Mike does not golf and therefore is not invited to go with John and Adam to the local golf course.

When John meets with Mike and Adam to discuss their performance, Mike is rated lower than Adam because John compares them based on his view or opinion about each employee instead of on their performance standards.

Opportunities for Development

In a meeting, Jill is always actively involved by asking questions and commenting. Her co-worker Mary, quiet yet attentive, will listen to the meeting and take notes to ensure she remembers the information from the meeting.

Their manager only remembers Jill because of her comments in meetings and offers her additional opportunities for learning and development. This is the contrast error in action. Both Jill and Mary are competent, but their manager consciously rated them based on their communication style.

Why HR Needs to Understand the Contrast Effect

This type of bias reveals a problem: someone always ends up at the bottom when employees are compared to each other instead of measured against a company standard. The problem is usually not the employee but the standard set by the manager. The impacts of this bias include:

  • Losing Talent. Employees performing at an acceptable standard are being told they are not. This can result in the employee feeling undervalued and leaving the organization.
  • Eliminating Teamwork or a Collaborative Culture. When the team learns their manager is comparing them against each other, it fosters a negative workplace culture by pitting employees against each other. In addition, this may increase potential interpersonal conflicts, which waste company time and decrease the productivity standards needed for business success.
  • Introducing Flawed Data. Contrast effect bias can create a false impression that more people need to be hired or the current workforce is not skilled enough to meet company goals.

How To Prevent the Contrast Effect from Impacting Hiring

There are several ways to help mitigate the contrast effect from impacting recruiting efforts.

1. Awareness

Train the hiring managers in your organization about this bias. Awareness is always the first step to remove bias from the hiring process. You can use the previous sections to create an outline for the training.

2. Review Job Descriptions

As you read over the job description, replace any competitive words like “determined” with “collaborative.” The purpose of this is to demonstrate a positive and healthy work environment that everyone would thrive in.

3. The Blind Resume Review

Based on your organization’s abilities, it is recommended you hide the characteristics you are able to that could lead to contrast bias when reviewing resumes. These characteristics include but are not limited to name, race, color, religion, sexual orientation, pregnancy status, gender and national origin.

4. Standardized Interviews

There are several interview formats that mitigate or prevent contrast bias among candidates being considered for a position. This standardization is accomplished through rating each candidate based on competencies needed to be successful in the role and asking predetermined interview questions related to each competency. Avoid unstructured interviews.

5. The Likeability Factor

We are naturally drawn to those who are similar to us. As you prepare for interviews, ask yourself how important it is that you like the person in this position. Once you identify this, it is easier for you to control contrast bias by rating this person’s likability. Create a Likert scale on your interview form to ensure objective ratings and minimize your personal feelings toward the person.

Questions You’ve Asked Us About the Contrast Effect

Why do people experience the contrast effect?
We are naturally drawn to people who are like us and can be tempted to hire, promote or give overall high praise for those who may be our friends at work.
Ryan Archibald

Ryan Archibald

Ryan is the HR Director at Paul Davis Restoration of Utah with four years of experience and three masters degrees. One accomplishment he is proud of is the design and launch of a development program for 800+ employees.

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