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Unconscious Bias in the Hiring Process

Newsletter • volume 6 • number 6

Written by Michelle Martinez after interviewing Jim Kennedy. Originally published in EMA Online, an online publication of the Employment Management Association, a division of the Society for Human Resource Management. More information on this topic can be found at Interviewing a Global Workforce.

A candidate comes into your office for a job interview. Instead of looking right at your face, he casts his eyes downward—a gesture that signifies respect in his Asian culture. But your immediate first thought is, "Can I trust him?" This is a very realistic example of how behavior can take on negative consequences if the parties involved aren't aware of cultural differences.

Jim Kennedy, founder and CEO of Management Team Consultants, Inc., a San Rafael, CA-based firm specializing in interview training, says his clients share similar experiences to the one mentioned above. One case in point: A staffing manager at a multi-billion-dollar technology company interviewed a job candidate from India. The staffing manager felt the candidate was a terrific match for the open position so he arranged a meeting between the candidate and the vice president. The meeting with the vice president only lasted about five minutes, and when the candidate returned to the staffing manager's office, he looked upset. The candidate said that when he walked into the vice president's office, instead of introducing himself or getting to know the candidate, the executive abruptly said, "Why should I hire you?"

The candidate was not accustomed to such blunt behavior. He thought it was offensive and he felt hurt and bewildered as to why the vice president didn't want to learn more about him and his qualifications. In his culture, building a rapport with people was an important part of any communication.

Such an interaction could cost an organization the loss of a highly talented individual. One of the mistakes interviewers often make, explains Kennedy is "to assume they are treating everyone fairly if they are treating everyone the same. This is not fair, you have to respond to where they (candidates) are and treat each person as a unique individual."

With all the career books and seminars available, it's often difficult for interviewers to see beyond behavior that is not "by-the-book." But because the workforce has become more diverse and global, it's important for interviewers to "move beyond their cultural comfort zone," Kennedy says. "We help interviewers learn more about people from different cultures, train them to be more objective, and give them techniques to keep the interview going, drawing out information from candidates who may not as freely disclose their accomplishments."

The technology talent scarcity has brought out the need for interviewers to become more aware of the cultural backgrounds of candidates. "Many of the technology candidates (in the Silicon Valley, for example) might come from cultures where assertiveness and self-promotion was not mainstream," says Kennedy. And, direct eye contact would be a sign of disrespect.

A couple of points Kennedy suggests to expand your cultural comfort zone:

- Develop a rapport with candidates. Take time for small talk and introductions. Thank candidates for coming. Provide some information about the organization. Such efforts exemplify respect.

- Don't use the "lazy person's interview question," which is asking—as the first question—"Why should I hire you?"

- If a candidate seems humble or reluctant to talk about personal accomplishments, it may be because the candidate is used to work in a team environment where individuals don't talk about their own accomplishments. To help draw out the information, take the time to ask questions about the team. "Allow the candidate to talk about what others did on the project," Kennedy says. "Then ask the candidate what was his or her role was on the team."

- Don't assume that taking more time with a candidate during the interview is a negative, or a strike against an individual's performance. Rapport- and relationship-building is highly valued in many cultures. Don't assume the fast-paced "American way" is the best way to communicate.

"Today's interviewers need to learn skills to move beyond their cultural comfort zone," Kennedy says. "This will eliminate unconscious interviewer bias and lead to better hiring decisions. It will also serve them well in relating to different people they work with on a day-to-day basis as colleagues and customers."

Logo of Employment Management Association, original publishers of interviewer bias article