A world of bias


Bias is all around us, affecting how we make decisions every day. And it can be particularly pronounced at job search time, in the form of, say, an interviewer’s bias against graduates of Big State University, or your own bias against small companies due to your preconceived notions about risk. There are also the nastier kinds of bias that are based on elements of someone’s identity, such as cultural heritage, skin color, or gender. All of these biases—those filters we apply completely without thinking—can have consequences on your decisions, or those of your interviewer.

I first learned about bias in high school through Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. In this imagined conversation between Plato’s mentor Socrates and Plato’s brother Glaucon, Socrates asks Glaucon to imagine people who had lived all their lives as prisoners in a dark cave, chained facing a wall, unable to turn around. The only light comes from a fire burning behind them, and all they can see are shadows on the wall, thrown there by people and things passing in front of the fire. As those shadows danced and moved, the prisoners would attach meaning to them and gradually build their worldview based on those perceptions. With such a thinking process, grounded on projections of reality as opposed to reality itself, Socrates asks, how could they draw an accurate picture of the world?

Like Plato’s imagined prisoners in their cave, we all bring our own projections of reality to the table when we make important life decisions. Our filters affect what jobs we take, or how we feel about the people we spend our lives with. Regardless of whether you want to change your filters (which is a whole separate topic), it is helpful to be aware of them and to recognize that they affect how you go through the world.

Particularly during a job search, it’s also important to know that interviewers and hiring managers have their own biases that affect their decisions about you. Sometimes these individual worldviews can be a bit baffling to others with different bases of experience, and it’s not always in your power to change them. But being aware of the phenomenon is a first step toward making sure that biases—either your own or those of your interviewers—don’t get in the way of your pursuit of your dream job.

Seeing the caves

In the job search, bias frequently comes out on the employer’s side, such as the time my candidate, John, didn’t get a job because of his hobby. When I asked the hiring manager about his decision, he first said that there was a mismatch between John’s education and the required job specs—but I knew that wasn’t the full story, because he had seen John’s CV and had no problem with it before the interview. So I kept probing. “I just don’t think that John would fit well in my team,” the hiring manager said. “We’re all pretty intensely focused on our science here, as you know, and John does enjoy his bowling.”

What effect would bowling have on John’s ability to do this job? Absolutely none, of course. But as I looked around the hiring manager’s office, I noted the diplomas, the framed cover from a prestigious journal, and a host of other clues that this person’s worldview was 100% science. It was clear that this is not a person you chat with about outside activities—even if you are asked. My guess is that his preferred answer to “What do you do in your spare time?” would have been “I enjoy keeping up with the literature.” Now that was a manager who was still in his cave, so to speak.

The silver lining for John, and others in similar positions, is that not getting a job because of a hiring manager’s bias may mean that it wouldn’t have been a good match anyway. John could have been very uncomfortable working for a guy who expects his scientists to think about their research 24/7.

But it’s not always hiring managers and interviewers who let their biases get in the way of a successful job search. Sometimes candidates’ biases can interfere too, as was the case for René. I set René up to interview with a stressed-out quality control lab manager who really needed someone to share the workload. It was a great job with a fast upward track to management, and I knew that they would have loved working with each other. Unfortunately, their biases got in the way. René had the impression that quality control work is not “real” science and that it would be tough to find the intellectual stimulation she needed. The manager had concerns, too. She confided in me prior to the interview that she felt our candidate was “a bit too academic,” and that perhaps the “intensity of the job may be too much for her.”

I did my best to convince these two that their biases were wrong and tried to bring them together. But in the end, it was a terrible interview. The manager asked questions focused on René’s ability to crank out good work under pressure, and René kept going back to the intricacies of the science involved, at a pace that sounded far too academic. Their biases were just too much to overcome. As a result, they missed out on what could have been an excellent partnership. 

Focus on what you can control

Going back to Plato’s lesson about the cave, it’s clear that we’ve all acquired certain “shadow” experiences that affect our decisions, and that other people’s decisions about us are driven by their experiences in much the same way. So what can we do about it? As always, the only thing you can count on is what you can control personally. Your communication strategy is one of those things: You have a mission as a job seeker, and it’s up to you to control exactly how you communicate that mission.

Next month, I’ll discuss how you can maintain control to steer your job search. This means you do not turn over the keys to your future to anyone. No hiring manager who discriminates against bowlers will affect your search if you keep your eyes and ears open for clues and adapt, putting your best foot forward each step of the way.

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