Although most of us believe that we are ethical and unbiased, and that we can make objective assessments to reach fair and rational conclusions, this is nearly impossible. Scientists postulate that when the brain is overloaded with information, it creates shortcuts to process that information, and uses past experiences to draw assumptions. Hidden, or unconscious, biases are part of the human condition. Even the most open-minded people harbor them. The reality is that our attitudes and behavior can be influenced more by instinctive “feelings” than they can by rational thought.
“Gut feelings” govern every choice we make, from what to have for dinner, to making business decisions. We have laws and regulations that protect job seekers from overt biases, or discrimination based upon protected classes. But the unconscious bias in the hiring process is slippery. It’s difficult to convince someone that he or she is guilty of using it, and even if you can, there is usually no recourse.
Consider the following scenarios in which unconscious biases trump logic and reason:
A manager decides to exclude Candidate A from consideration, even though Candidate A has more relevant experience and education than Candidate B. Hiring manager is a huge New York Yankees fan. Candidate A is from Boston, leading the hiring manager to assume that A is a Red Sox fan. Hiring manager’s stated reason: “Not a good fit with the team.”
Hiring manager meets with 3 candidates, two of whom are equally qualified, one of whom is eminently qualified. The more qualified candidate is excluded, and the manager decides to go with the candidate she deems to be the “best fit for the team.” That candidate, coincidentally, grew up in the same town as the manager, and knows many of the same people.
When we allow unconscious biases to rule the hiring process, both sides lose. Managers, believing that they’ve embraced the idea of “cultural fit” instead fall into the trap of hiring people with similar backgrounds and values as they have. Cultural fit should be about overall culture and organizational values, and not about “who I’d like to have a beer with.” In fact, some of the best, most effective teams are comprised of members who have differing values and experiences. Diversity drives innovation and excellence. Think of a sports team. Not even a top NBA coach would be able to make a winning team out of point guards, because everyone plays the same position. Top teams are made up of people with different, but complementary strengths.
Candidates are constantly advised to articulate their background, experiences, and value they can bring to the role. But because of the existence of unconscious bias, this level of preparation is not enough. In fact, it is only the very beginning. Candidates need to practice things like presentation and body language just as much, if not more, as they do the story of their career progression. When clients lament that they’ve just interviewed for the “perfect” job, but have been excluded from continuing in the process, these unconscious biases are almost always the explanation.
The bottom line
It is unlikely that formalized, metric-oriented hiring processes will supersede the “gut feeling” any time soon. With that in mind, it is best to prepare yourself for the reality of the unconscious discrimination that exists, and understand that when you are rejected, it is almost always them, not you.