It is important for interviewers to recognize bias when it exists to be able to provide equal employment opportunity (EEO) to all applicants, which is required by law. Becoming aware of bias that exists toward people of the dominant white culture, whether positive or negative, is a crucial first step.
When you think about bias in job interviews, the typical image that comes to mind is that of a white interviewer’s bias creating a barrier to hiring an applicant of a diverse background. Rarely, if ever, talked about is another type of bias that exists toward blond hair and blue eyed applicants, on which a small part of my research on diversity in the hiring process was focused. This type of bias can also be harmful to the hiring process, as with any applicant of any makeup, if an applicant is hired based more on an interviewer’s bias than on the applicant’s skills, knowledge and abilities for the job.
First I want to address bias that exists toward blond haired applicants that works in their favor, as in the following two examples.
Pete, who is a blond European American and a Psychologist, shared this experience: “I interviewed for a job where the interviewer was a friend of a friend of mine. He asked me a question about some part of the job that I had no clue about. He could see that I was confused, so he told me a little more about it. I still had no clue, but I repeated a little of what he told me. Then he told me a little more and said, ‘You know about that, right?’ After several clues from him, I finally got a clear enough picture of what he was talking about that I could say, ‘Yes, I understand that.’ I got hired for the job.”
Lakesha, who is African American and an HR Employment Representative, who interviews applicants as part of her job, had this perspective about people with blond hair and blue eyes: “I think the assumption is that they will fit in well in [the Midwest]. No real flags or concerns. Maybe if anything, there’s more of a positive influence, they’ll be able to pick up on [the job tasks] quickly, no real concerns about the candidate. So maybe it’s more of a laissez-faire attitude.”
Both of these situations could result in a lesser qualified applicant being hired. Bias toward blond applicants can be harmful to the applicant also. You have likely heard of the blond jokes and stereotypes, such as icy blond, blond bombshell and dumb blond, which are primarily directed towards women. While these stereotypes are typically brought up in jest, bias related to these comments can still infiltrate an interviewer’s subconscious.
Marie, who is Latina and a Diversity Manager, talked about her bias against people who are blond with blue eyes: “I have my own personal bias about blond hair and blue eyes. My sister is blond hair with blue eyes, and we never got along, we still don’t. I’ve had some real incredible experiences, especially with women with blond hair and blue eyes. Just growing up, it was a sea of blond hair and blue eyed people. I was referred to…., well they would call me ‘monkey’ because they said I looked like a monkey. This was their own racism.”
Going deeper into thought and imagining herself in an interviewer’s shoes, Marie continued. . . “I wonder, . . . if I were to interview someone with blond hair and blue eyes, if I would allow that, those experiences, to cloud my judgment. I wonder. I would really have to examine that, and I probably wouldn’t want to make that [hiring] decision on my own.”
Maureen, who is European American with blond hair and blue eyes and an HR Manager, spoke of her experiences on the receiving side of bias and being stereotyped: “That they are airheads. It’s a sexist thing, very much so. That they are not intelligent beings. So it’s a sexual and intelligent thing. The sexual part is generally when you look at someone with long, blond hair, it is, ‘How is that person built? What’s her figure like?’ Those things are observed or perceived. A blond bimbo, I’ve heard that. And about blond hair, ‘Is it real?’ ”
Diane, who is African American and a Senior Office Support Supervisor, said she is aware of this stereotype of blonds: “I think the general thing out there, the stereotype is, okay, do they really know what they are doing? That you will get from interviewers more than anything – the dumb blond stereotype out there.”
So is there a difference between negative bias toward applicants of color and blonds in job interviews?
When asked if she thought the interviewer may be suspicious and question the applicant a little further because they have blond hair and blue eyes, rather than assuming they have done everything stated on their resume, Diane replied, “Exactly. Maybe so…” But… many applicants of color have said the exact same thing has happened to them. What’s the difference? Diane responded: “Yes. I think where you draw the line is, if you have somebody with blond hair and blue eyes, [the interviewer] will be willing more to question [the applicant]. Whereas with a person of color, I think the perspective is, ‘Oh no, they couldn’t have done all that,’ and [the interviewer may] not even go that route [of questioning]. It’s a thin line, but that’s where I would draw it.”
One difference is that interviewers may feel a need to overly explain things to a blond applicant or overly question a blond applicant’s resume or qualifications. Whereas with an applicant of color, interviewers may assume their low expectations have been met and fail to question the applicant further. In this situation, the interviewer would not be providing equal opportunity for both applicants to respond completely to the interview questions.
My research and other research have proven bias exists in job interviews. But can we always recognize it? Be aware that many of the examples mentioned here can also apply to other applicants who are white, not just to those who are blond. Bias may appear as subtle behaviors on your interview team, can take many shapes and forms, and often can go unnoticed. An excellent resource to help uncover hidden bias is Peggy Macintosh’s paper, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.
At a time in history when the applicant pool and workforce are rapidly becoming more diverse, organizations need to train their recruiting and hiring staff on identifying and managing all kinds of bias. The resources offered at DiversityIntegration.com can help your organization achieve that goal and meet the demands of an increasingly diversity society and workplace.
Copyright © 2016 Lila Kelly Associates, LLC. Integrating Diversity into Recruiting, Interviewing, Hiring and Retention – Since 1992. Not to be reprinted without written permission from Lila Kelly. This article includes excerpts from Lila Kelly’s book, Integrate Diversity into Recruiting, Interviewing and Hiring, which is based on her research and years of experience in this area. More information at Lila Kelly Associates and DiversityIntegration.com.