How an Employer’s Hidden Bias Can Keep You From Getting Hired

woman having job interview
The odds might be stacked against you in a job interview. | iStock/Getty Images

Let’s all take a moment to imagine a world where the job search is easy, the interview process is fair, and the subconscious hiring bias is nonexistent. Nice, right?
Unfortunately, it’s a just a pipe dream as discriminatory practices and the job hunt tend to go hand in hand. It’s in everyone’s best interest to address and overcome unconscious bias during the hiring process as studies show diverse teams are smarter and better complex problem solvers than less diverse teams.
So the tendency to take a mental shortcut can be damaging. Observed patterns and cultural stereotypes never tell the whole story — especially when it affects performance and success. Many suggest the key to overcoming hiring bias first is being aware of its prevalence. So let’s lay it all out there. The following professional biases shouldn’t prevent you from getting hired, but sadly they do.

1. Your weight

The notion that people are judged by their appearance is nothing new. That unfortunate reality has been proven time and time again when it comes to many real-world scenarios. Fairygodboss, a job site for women, surveyed 500 hiring professionals and revealed the harsh biases that prevent women from getting hired. One of the most telling? Your weight.
Hiring professionals who were shown a picture of the heaviest-looking woman were more likely to describe her as lazy (21%) than any other woman pictured. They doubted her leadership potential as well as her professionalism. Furthermore, only 15.6% of decision-makers surveyed said they would consider hiring the woman.
The report notes, “Overweight women may need to emphasize their work, ethic, professionalism and leadership skills more so than other candidates in order to level the playing field.”
Next: What’s in a name? Everything.

2. Your name

Dwight from The Office
People with white-sounding names get more callbacks. | NBC

Regardless of whether it’s a conscious effort, a person’s name influences interview callback rates. Research from Australian National University found names with an Anglo subtext have a better shot at landing an interview over another applicant. To get the same number of interviews as an Anglo-sounding name, a Chinese person must submit 68% more applications, an Italian person 12% more, and a person of Middle Eastern descent 64% more applications.
Attempts to “train away” the name bias in hiring processes proved ineffective. And “whitening” your name — while helpful — misses the bigger picture entirely. More companies are implementing blind recruiting strategies (similar to how blind auditions work on the competition show, The Voice) to counteract this hidden bias.
Next: Should you dress to look younger?

3. Your age

sad senior man
Ageism is prevalent in the workplace. | littlebee80/iStock/Getty Images

The same Fairygodboss study also addressed ageism in the workplace. Overweight candidates were perceived as lazy and unprofessional, while older candidates were viewed as reliable, professional, and a leader. Still these positive characteristics most say they want in a job candidate did nothing to help thwart their inevitable downfall.
Only 29.2% of hiring managers said they’d consider giving her a shot, and out of 15 candidate profiles, the eldest candidate ranked 10th for hireability. Sadly, this suggests perceived generational differences do more to tip the scales than competency or learned skills.
Next: Turn that frown upside down (especially if you’re a woman).

4. Your gender — but not in the way you think

Women face more scrutiny. | Nandofotos/iStock/Getty Images

Another grim hidden bias is gender. But the phenomenon goes well beyond the tendency to hire men for mathematics roles and women for administrative work. The gender of your interviewer can also play a role here when it comes to demeanor. Fairygodboss found men and women have different reactions to facial expressions. For example, over half of male hiring managers described frowning women as cold, but a staggering 70.5% of women described her as such.
The study suggests though it’s entirely possible that women judge female candidates more harshly than men, they also conclude “women place a higher value on smooth relationships in the workplace. Demeanor could be interpreted as a proxy for how supportive a future colleague may be, or whether she will be easy to work with.”
Next: Why there’s only room for one

5. Your competition

Job interview
Your experience might seem threatening. | Robert Daly/iStock/Getty Images

Humans have been conditioned to correlate stereotypes and competency. For example, many might assume those of Indian decent are proficient in math, or women are not suited for leadership roles. But people are also primed to discount someone whom they perceive as a threat.
Madan Pillutla, a professor of organizational behavior at London Business School, tells Business Insider, “Even if people are well-meaning and well-intentioned, it’s very difficult to act against your own ‘self-interest’ by hiring someone who could outperform you.”
Those who feel insecure in their roles are less likely to involve someone they deem more competent than themselves. In other words, humans don’t like to share the spotlight.
Next: Harmless personal choices that influence opinions

6. Your personal choices

man with tattoos
Not everyone will like your tattoos. | iStock/Getty Images

Unfortunately, we’re not yet done with the effect a person’s appearance has on their success in the job market. Even seemingly trivial personal choices we make regarding our style can form an impression on the interviewer. Tattoos are an increasingly common issue now that nearly a third of the population is inked. That number climbs to 47% for the millennial generation. While tattoos are in no way directly linked to competency, 37% of managers say tattoos can negatively influence your career, and an even greater number of people deem tattoos inappropriate at work.
Even how you style your hair can trigger discrimination. This is especially true for African-American women who have filed lawsuits regarding this issue. Still, the courts ruled discrimination against dreadlocks is not illegal, despite the fact that many believe employers prefer long, straight hair on women, and shorter cuts for men.
Next: Why you shouldn’t always play up your unique traits

7. Your interview team

candidate in a job interview
Your interviewer is looking for someone who’d fit in with the company. | iStock/Getty Images

Growing up, kids are encouraged to be unique, individual, and confident. But psychology tells us that’s not always the best approach for succeeding in the job market. Hiring managers, like people, are drawn to those “like them,” even if it’s irrelevant to the job in question. A “similar-to-me” bias is why companies play to a “culture fit” during interviews. More than aptitude, people are prone to hire someone they’d share a beer with or sit with during their lunch breaks.
Companies that don’t adhere to a structured hiring process that outlines criteria, planning questions, and a rubric for evaluation are more likely to fall back into these hidden biases that cloud judgment.
Next: People see what they want to see.

8. Your first impression

Charlie from It's Always Sunny in an interview
First impressions are everything. | FX

The thing about resumes is they are a vessel for first impressions, which can severely impact hiring biases. Not only will a polished resume — or an equally unpolished resume — anchor the hiring team’s expectations, it warrants favoritism before you even walk into a room. Almost everyone falls victim to confirmation bias, meaning people are apt to pay attention to, remember, and seek out qualities that confirm an already-established belief. They’ll also ignore anything that contradicts it. This type of mental block works against hopeful candidates immensely, and unfortunately it’s hard to overcome.
On the other hand, hiring managers who arrive to an interview unprepared are more likely to rely on intuition or their “sixth sense” to form an opinion. When qualifying information is not readily available, people fall back on assumptions formed from emotion.
Follow Lauren on Twitter @la_hamer.
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