Years ago I worked in the television sector. One morning I was asked to cover the HR side of a graphic design hiring process. In full disclosure, what I know about graphic design can be encapsulated in a four character tweet. Zero. A young man came in clutching his portfolio. Not a word was said, but eyebrows were raised and a look was exchanged amongst the panel who visibly bristled. The candidate had great grades, his portfolio to my uneducated eye seemed better than the other candidates (but hey what do I know?) and he had excellent work experience.

But in the height of the post punk era – he was wearing a suit. Apparently artists and designers are not supposed to look like accountants. The gentleman was cut using the age old hiring cop-out, “cultural fit”. He went on to have a hugely successful career in the film industry in California where clearly suit wearing designers were de rigueur.

In another interview for a world leading consulting company a candidate with a hole the size of a pin in his ear (no jewellery) was not short listed because “that wouldn’t work with our clients” My genuine and somewhat mild query about what kind of consulting required such close proximity to an employee’s ear was met with open contempt.

Wake up call

We all like to think of ourselves as unbiased and fair. I was certainly introduced to my own biases when I encountered Conchita Wurst in this year’s Eurovision song contest. Men don’t wear skirts and women don’t have beards. Right? But he/she can sing. So what difference does it make?

Cultural fit has become the old hiring cop-out rejection line.

Unconscious bias is the psychological firewall that makes us feel secure, protected and unthreatened in our tribe or group. So we surround ourselves with P.L.U. (People Like Us.) to enhance our feeling of comfort and control. We talk about “corporate culture” as if these values magically embed themselves in our organisations. We conveniently forget that this culture reflects the norms driven by the often unwritten and unspoken code of the dominant group, composed of a collection of P.L.U. individuals.

Copy/paste selection

These codes can cover both exclusion and inclusion which spans, gender, ethnicity, nationality or body weight and height. We all make assumptions, positive and negative, all the time related to appearance, colouring, accent, background, age, occupations, disability, education and postal codes. Anecdotes abound about national stereotypes. An Asian candidate jokingly introduced himself as the only Chinese person who was useless at Maths. A retired baby-boomer quipped that the over weight manager, 20 years his junior who interviewed him, statistically would be a stronger candidate for a coronary than himself. Blondes might have more fun, but brunettes earn more money, being perceived to be more intelligent and trustworthy.


Cave age assumptions

Research from Cook Ross tells us that only 15% of U.S. men are over 6 foot tall, yet 60% of male C.E.Os seemingly are above that height. I’m assuming that a height criterion is not specified in any job description. Yet, despite being in the 21st century and the likelihood of encountering an out of control bike messenger in reception is greater than sighting a rampaging bear, our cave based assumptions and DNA are still kicking in. We still prefer and select men who can protect and “lead” us in fight or flight and place high values on those characteristics.

But, the reality is a bike messenger could be taken out with a handbag

This doesn’t just apply to what we do, but also to what we don’t do. If they step out of their prescribed roles as followers and carers, women are judged harshly and in certain situations are perceived to be less competent. Men are not supposed to want to look after children and stay at home dads “violate their man code” An advertising campaign targeting men for the nursing profession asked “Are you man enough to be a nurse?” Lazy stereotyping exists in all areas of our society and the sooner we all become aware of them real, active steps can be made to have a more inclusive workplaces

The reality is that most hiring manager and even recruitment officers  are not trained by organisations on unconscious bias. This needs to change and rapidly to avoid the constant cycle of copy/paste recruitment.

Who do you judge?

Test your unconscious biases in the Implicit Association Test It is a complimentary test which has been used by millions in 20 countries.

So now who do you judge?


Dorothy Dalton is an international talent management strategist, working on both ends of the spectrum on executive search and career transition coaching from “hire to retire.” She is Co-Founder of 3Plus International set up to advance the careers of professional women through coaching, mentoring, training and sponsoring programmes.