How employers and employees can break through preconceived notions
by Teresa Whitacre
Whether you’re looking for work or to hire just the right person, there is an avalanche of advice from many sources. The “dos and don’ts”—and all the associated opinions—can make your head spin. I spoke to several people on both sides of the table and asked whether there was a key item they focused on when looking for work or to hire workers. All of them echoed a common theme: Conquering biases.
Bias is defined as a cause to feel or show inclination or prejudice for or against something or someone; to be in favor of, or against, a person or group.1 Bias comes in many forms, whether or not it’s intentional. Here are the most common types of biases, as discussed by some people I know:
Most of the people I spoke to talked about age biases—being too old, too young or somewhere in between. No matter how you spin it (lack of experience, overqualified, would get bored in the role), this type of bias is hard—but not impossible—to overcome.
As a job seeker, you are responsible for convincing the organization that just because you are more mature and more experienced, for example, doesn’t mean you’ll get bored in the role.
Perform a market analysis for the role in the geographic area where you’ll be working to find out that job’s salary range. Use that range as a benchmark to show what the going rate is for the area, as well as to start a conversation regarding the organization’s budget. Put together a portfolio of your work and experiences to show that you don’t get bored and your ideas aren’t stale. Rather, you look for opportunities to improve and make a difference.
The same holds true if you’re younger and seen as immature or lacking experience. Use your portfolio to show what you have done and how that will help solve an organization’s problem. Demonstrate your willingness to learn anything put in front of you. It’s up to you to prove that you are worth the gamble.
As a hiring organization, look inward to see how and why such bias exists. Did you have a previous negative experience with a specific age group? Do you have a track record of attracting only a certain group—such as newly minted college grads or those within 10 years of retirement? Are department managers partial to only one specific age group? Understanding why the bias exists or how it developed can help combat the problem and provide potential solutions.
Another frequently occurring bias, particularly present in today’s gig economy, is job hopping. As an organization, one way to combat this bias is to consider whether the candidate has been consistently employed, using and strengthening his or her skills. Economic trends often dictate contract, temporary or gig-type work, especially during business closings and mass terminations.
Employers must consider the cost of hiring, training and turnover, which is why a gig worker might be considered someone who will cost the organization more than a permanent employee. But employers also must consider the costs of not filling the role—maybe this type of candidate is exactly what you need.
Often, gaps in work history are an unthought-of bias. Employers tend to see them as red flags. Why was this person unemployed during this period? What would happen if we hired this person? Would he or she stick around?
As a job seeker, never hide gaps in your employment. Always be upfront about them and their reasons. If you were terminated, laid off or left voluntarily for any reason, be prepared to tell the truth with a compelling story. Show progress of what you accomplished during the gap. Maybe you read industry periodicals, took online classes, cared for a sick relative and learned about medication management, or traveled the world. Find something you did during the gap and spin it to fit the job you’re looking for. Find the value in the down time. Taking care of children and elderly parents is difficult work that can require patience, time management, organization, finance, negotiation and supply chain skills. If you traveled extensively, perhaps you learned new languages, logistics and cultural differences. All are valuable skills in today’s economy.
The toughest bias to overcome is a candidate’s medical history. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act prevents most sharing of medical information, but as an organization, what about the candidate who self-discloses? Or someone who informs you of a candidate’s medical issue? It is best not to show any bias regarding medical conditions.
For example, a good friend of mine disclosed to his employer that he is diabetic, and now his employer must tread carefully to avoid any bias due to his diagnosis. A client of mine was in the process of hiring an employee with mental health issues and the candidate’s condition came out during a medical exam. The employer wisely chose not to use this information in its hiring process because the candidate’s issue had no bearing on his or her ability or fit for the role. The same can be said for my diabetic friend. As long as he continues to be the stellar performer he is, the employer cannot—and should not—be biased about his medical condition.
Overcoming bias can be difficult. But if you’re aware of it and its many forms, you can work to conquer it.
- “Bias,” Oxford English Dictionary, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/bias.
Teresa Whitacre is a senior quality engineer and principal at Marketech Systems in Pittsburgh. She holds a bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership and an MBA from Ashford University in San Diego, CA. She is an ASQ-certified quality auditor, engineer, Six Sigma Green Belt and manager of quality/organizational excellence. An ASQ fellow, Whitacre is an instructor for ASQ’s Pittsburgh Section’s certified quality inspector refresher course and past deputy regional director for ASQ Region 8.