Lately, there has been a lot of talk in the media about bias in everyday life and how we need to recognize and admit that it exists for us all. This also applies to our professional lives, and not just in terms of the way we work and who we encounter each day. You may not have thought about it, but there are a lot of assumptions made during the hiring process both on the candidate and employer side that can seriously affect the outcomes of interviews and offers.
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As a job applicant, it is important to be aware of these biases and how they present themselves so you can counter them. As an employer, you need to understand and recognize that the beliefs that you have may negatively alter the results of the hiring process. Kim Dukes, senior vice president of diversity search and direct hire at KNF&T Staffing Resources, shares the following insights about where unconscious bias exists in the hiring process and how to overcome it.
Q: At what stages in the hiring process do you see bias occurring?
A: Bias occurs during every stage of the hiring process, as it is implicit in every organization. From job descriptions to hiring decisions, conclusions are made based on the hiring official’s experience and beliefs. In a job posting, wording is highly important. Certain words will draw female applicants instead of male applicants and vice versa. It is essential for organizations to use both types of wording to attract a wide array of candidates. For example, a posting that states “flexible hours” is more likely to attract a woman, as they handle the majority of child and elder care duties. According to an internal Hewlett-Packard survey, women tend to apply to a job when they meet 100 percent of a posting’s stated qualifications, while men will generally apply when their experience is only a 60 percent match with the requirements.
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Q: It seems like you’d expect the most bias to occur during an interview. Is that the case, and how can a job applicant overcome this?
A: There are many assumptions that a hiring official can and will make during an interview. The employer may conclude something from an applicant’s answer that is not what the person intended. The same can happen when a candidate asks a question of the employer, as the employer may misunderstand why the question is being asked.
There are also cultural differences that are necessary to be aware of. Whether you are an employer or a candidate, the person you are talking with may use gestures with which you are unfamiliar. For example, in some countries people do not look a more senior professional directly in the eyes. Be cognizant that these differences do exist and don’t fault someone for something unusual. Instead, try asking them about it, which will bring you both to a more comfortable place.
Both parties need to understand that these misinterpretations can happen and that they are not malicious; they are just based on the other person’s experiences and worldview. As an applicant, I suggest you try to find a common ground with the employer. Make sure that when you ask a unique question, tell the employer why you are asking so they can understand your motivation for asking it. One of the best questions you can ask an employer is, “Do you have any concerns about hiring me?” If they are honest, this will give you the chance to address any issues or presumptions.
[See: The 10 Most Common Interview Questions.]
Q: What should organizations be doing to prevent unconscious bias during the hiring process?
A: Since bias is unique to each person, it’s important for organizations to encourage staff to recognize and admit where their preconceptions exist. Each person should question their opinions and explore other ways to look at people and the world. One useful tool is Bennett’s Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity, as it teaches you how we look at differences.
There is bias occurring in the final hiring stage all the time. If someone has a personal connection with the recruiter, like if they went to the same school or share the same interest, they are often more likely to be hired. This is true even when they are not necessarily the best person for the job. Recognize that you may be doing this and re-evaluate your candidate pool to ensure you are not exercising bias against more qualified candidates. You may be choosing a candidate based on your comfort level and assuming that because this person is “like you,” they’ll be a good fit for your organization or the job. This is not necessarily the case. Basing your preferences and decisions solely on similarities that you share with another person won’t guarantee you a high-performing professional.