Unconscious hiring bias. What is it and how to beat it.
Two things struck me this week about unconscious hiring bias. The first was a comment by someone I was talking to about a resume that had had been reviewed. The person implied that the laundry list of bullet points under each job in the resume (there were 10+ per position) was a turn off. The bullets talked about what the candidate’s job entailed (some including trivial matters), but the reviewer perceived that the candidate didn’t understand the more important accomplishment and may have issues in an autonomous position. I was struck by that comment, because what I saw was a person that did not know any better and just wrote a laundry list of job duties. Same resume. Different opinion. The second was an article published in the March 2019 issue of Money magazine. The article, by Jennifer Calfas, titled You Should Never Wear This Color to a Job Interview cites a CareerBuilder survey of 2,000 hiring managers that orange is the worst color to wear because they felt is telegraphed that the person was unprofessional.
Unconscious bias is everywhere people. While we may not want to acknowledge it, hiring managers bring their unconscious biases to the hiring process all the time. In the United States, there are many laws that address bias. Title VII of the Civil Right Act prohibits discrimination against someone on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex. There are additional laws (federal and state) that also cover pregnancy, disabilities and age (over 40) to name a few. These protections do not cover unconscious bias about how your resume looks or what color you wear. Job seekers face many forms of unconscious bias, though. What is a job seeker to do?
What is Unconscious Bias?
So what is unconscious bias, otherwise known as implicit bias or unconscious prejudice? I think this definition sums it up best. It is from an article in Psychology Today.
It (unconscious bias) is reflected in attitudes or stereotypes that affect one’s understanding, decision making and behavior, without consciously realizing it in many instances.
Unconscious bias is a human trait, and in the article the author writes that through Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), they have validated that the brain does use unconscious bias to make decisions. The idea is that like conscious bias, unconscious bias helps the brain make decisions quicker. The brain makes decision based on memories, facts and yes, stereotypes. Stereotypes come from many things: who brought us up and their beliefs, where we were brought up, the people we associate with and are friends with (and who are not), and the places where we go to get information (media). All this plays a part in how we think and feel about people. The funny thing about unconscious bias is because it is unconscious, people do not believe that they have this bias because they are not actively thinking about it. It is only when people become aware of it do they start analyzing its impact on their decision making.
Do you think that you don’t have any unconscious bias? Take a test. Harvard University has online tests called the Implicit Attitude Test (IAT) which, according to this instrument, will show if you have any implicit bias in the following areas:
Presidents (presidential popularity)
Gender-Science (link between liberal arts and females and between science and males?
The test looks at how fast your associate one characteristic (in my test being either Male or Female) with another (Career or Family in my test). You might be surprised by the results. Even though I have had a professional career since graduating college and my mother was both a nurse and lawyer, I was in the “slight automatic association” for Male with Career and Female with Family.
Acknowledging That There Is Unconscious Bias
HR professionals are much more aware than in the past about unconscious bias in organizations, and especially in the hiring process. Some organizations will have bias training as part of a diversity and inclusion initiative and will teach managers about unconscious bias and how it can harm the organization. Talking openly and candidly about the issue can help to bring awareness to this problem.
Yet many hiring managers (and some HR professionals too!) still are not aware or do not want to acknowledge how unconscious bias plays a role in decision making. So what should you do as a job seeker? Well, I always say knowledge is power. First, acknowledge that it exists. Yes, it might not be fair, but it is out there. And guess what; most of it is not illegal. Yes, you can pass on someone because of how their resume was written. And, while on the face of it thinking that someone who wears orange to an interview is unprofessional is dumb, it happens. Be aware of how people *might* judge you and plan accordingly.
How to Address Some Common Forms of Unconscious Bias
While as a job seeker you will not be able to work around all forms of unconscious bias, I am going to give you some ideas on ways to mitigate some common unconscious biases.
This happens when people take their cues about how to act from others instead of using their own judgement. Where job seekers can often see this at work is in a panel interview. Panel interviews are when a job seeker is interviewed by several people at the same time. In some organizations, the panel will take their cue about how to behave and their decision from the most senior member on the panel. Therefore, if you as a job seeker are invited to a panel interview, identify who is the senior member of the team and make sure that in the questioning, you are especially building rapport with this individual. Look at this person often, even when answering another person’s question. Mimic (but not obviously) this person’s body language. Smile at them. Building a positive relationship with the senior member through the interview process may result in that person’s decision being more favorably towards you, even if others may have reservations.
Human nature is that people like to be around people similar to themselves...people that think and feel the same. Obviously there are many issues with this. Just think about the “bro culture” that is pervasive in some Silicon Valley startups. So what do you as a job seeker do with affinity bias? This is where you research on the hiring manager and team comes in. Find out as much as you can about the person you will be interviewing with. Look at their LinkedIn profile or social media. See what they write about, think about. Maybe you have something in common there. Look at where they grew up, sports played, or where they went to school. See if there are some similarities there. If you can find something that you have in common, use it in the interview strategically to help build that rapport. As an example, let’s say that you find out that the person volunteers with the Girl Scouts. Maybe you want to mention your Girl Scout affiliation and how much it meant to you that adults would volunteer their time and recount an important Girl Scout experience. That can help the interviewer see you as similar to them and as a result, feel more affinity towards you.
The effect gets its name because if someone is biased against you, it is as if you have devil horns on your head...everything is bad about you. An example of this is that you have a typo on your resume. One misspelled word. Therefore, when the hiring manager sees that one typo, the assumption is that you are not careful, not detail oriented and therefore would not be able to do the job. All of this from one typo.
So to combat this, you need to be perfect in the hiring process. Is that a tall order? Yes, but it can be done. I see it all the time. Make sure that you have someone who is good in English grammar and punctuation (or whatever language you are writing in) read your resume and cover letter before you send it out. Same with your thank you email or letter. This is your marketing piece, so you must get it right. Make sure you double check that you are uploading or sending the right document(s). Get the address of the company and practice how long it will take you to get there and where you can park. Don’t arrive late. Bring a pen and something to write on to take notes. Turn off your cell phone or put it on airplane mode. Be prepared. Project professionalism.
This bias can be a tough one for job seekers to address. It involves how you look and how people make judgments about you based upon appearances or your perceived beauty. There are some things that will certainly be out of your control in this category of bias, like your height. Some people connote height with authority of power. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the average height of an American male of 20 or older is 5 ft. 9 inches. When you look at recent Presidents of the United States, their height is significantly more. President Trump is 6 ft. 3 inches. Barak Obama is 6 ft. 1 inch. George W. Bush was short by comparison at 5 ft. 11 ½ inch, but his dad, President George H.W. Bush was 6 ft. 2 inches as is Bill Clinton. See a pattern here? So maybe you cannot do much about your height (except wear heels or lifts). There are other things you can do, though, to address this bias.
One thing to do to address appearance bias is to “dress the part.” What does that mean? That means figure out what the dress code is for the place where you are interviewing and dress just a notch better than most people. How do you get this information? For one, you can ask at the time of the interview what the dress code would be. I would take it one step further, though. Look at pictures in social media about the company and look how people are dressed. If it is a jeans and t-shirts kind of place, dress up a bit nicer. Maybe a nice pair of jeans in a darker wash with a nice blouse or knit shirt. Whatever your choice, make sure it is clean, neat and does not have holes or stains.
For those that are older and feel that ageism is working against you with appearance, you can do things to help combat it. I am not saying this is right or wrong, but if you feel that your gray or silver hair is a distraction, you may want to dye it. You may want to get a more modern hairstyle or makeup that does not telegraph you are stuck in the 90s. If you think your teeth have yellowed over the years, then teeth whitening might be an option. Clothing that is flattering on your body and more current might go a long way to fight appearance bias.
Frankly I wish that there was no need for me to write this article. Think about how stupid it is to go to your closet and think, should I wear that blue blazer with the white shirt and avoid the gray blazer with the orange blouse because I don’t want to look unprofessional. Yet, we are all human and all these different ways we are being judged are a fact of life. Certainly you can go through your job search with the idea that the employer should like you as you are and if you are not liked for frivolous reasons, than it is not the right place for you. If that is your thought process, I admire you for it. Go for it. But as a career coach and with all my experience in talent acquisition, I know that with that attitude your job search may be longer...much longer. Without giving up your personality and individuality, you can make strategic “tweaks” in how you present yourself that can overcome some of these unconscious biases. At the end of the day, I want you to find the best job for you. This is the job that provides engaging work with a manager that is interested in your development along with a great company culture. In my opinion, the journey to getting there is less important than the final result.