Blink and Diversity Recruiting

In Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent new book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, he demonstrates that the power of our unconscious biases is often greater than that of our conscious beliefs. What we believe is frequently overshadowed by assumptions we’re often unaware we’re making. Like it or not, this spills over into almost all of our hiring decisions, and it can affect how we interview and perceive diverse candidates. Why Do We Hate Short People? What if I told you that companies regularly discriminate against short people when they are hiring top executives? That’s ridiculous, right? Yes, some companies may discriminate by race, sex, or ethnicity, but surely our “vertically challenged” friends don’t need protected-class status! Yet some level of bias clearly exists. An excerpt from Blink on the “tall CEO” phenomenon:

I polled about half of the companies on the Fortune 500 list ó the largest corporations in the United States ó asking each company questions about its CEOs. The heads of big companies are, as I’m sure comes as no surprise to anyone, overwhelmingly white men, which undoubtedly reflects some kind of implicit bias. But they are also virtually all tall: In my sample, I found that on average CEOs were just a shade under six feet. Given that the average American male is 5’9″, that means that CEOs, as a group, have about three inches on the rest of their sex. But this statistic actually understates matters. In the U.S. population, about 14.5 percent of all men are six feet or over. Among CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, that number is 58 percent. Even more strikingly, in the general American population, 3.9 percent of adult men are 6’2″ or taller. Among my CEO sample, 30 percent were 6’2″ or taller.

And this doesn’t just affect the corporate executive suite. Gladwell goes on:

Not long ago, researchers went back and analyzed the data from four large research studies that had followed thousands of people from birth to adulthood, and calculated that when corrected for variables like age and gender and weight, an inch of height is worth $789 a year in salary.

But I’m not a “heightist,” you argue. Some of my very best friends are quite short! In fact, just last Friday I just played cards with a group of pygmies. The challenge here is that you often “think without thinking,” meaning that some level of your unconscious slips into your conscious decision making. Unknowingly, such biases may be creeping into your hiring decisions. The following example is a startling example of this phenomenon in action. Listening With Your Ears: Mistakes We Make in Hiring Another striking example of unconscious discrimination can be found in classical music. For many years, orchestras were very male-dominated. This tendency was based on the assumption that female musicians were not anatomically equipped to play certain instruments at the same level as men. Until one day, the maestro of the all-male Munich Philharmonic erected a screen to conceal auditioning trombonists. One applicant stood out from all of the others ó and the musical director was shocked to learn that this person was a woman, not a man. By listening with his ears and not his assumptions, his group hired the first woman in the orchestra’s history. Do even the most enlightened of us make this same kind of mistake in our selection processes? Do we ascribe certain characteristics to individuals, not because of what they’re saying, but because of what they look like, where they come from, or even what school they went to? According to Gladwell, the answer is very often yes. He goes on to recount how he ó who is part African American ó took an online psychological experiment called the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which told him that he unconsciously has a preference for Caucasians to African Americans. (If you’re interested in taking the test yourself, click here. I took the test and must say that I was surprised with my own preferences.) What You Can Do About It At the SHRM conference last week in San Diego, I listened to Gladwell speak passionately about the orchestra maestro, his own implicit associations, and the “tall CEO syndrome.” My takeaway from his talk was that a recruiting team’s job is not to change hearts and minds, since you are very unlikely to have an impact in this area. Where you are likely to have an impact, says Gladwell, is where you can change the context and structure of how decisions are made. Police, for example, are starting to ban high-speed chases in many locations because they feel that they present a poor context in which to make decisions ó and usually have disastrous consequences for the officers, the perpetrators, and the public at large. There are several context-changing opportunities in which recruiters can minimize the impact of split-second and implicit associations. For example, you have the power to:

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  • Build effective “screens” between your hiring managers and your candidates. A screen helped the maestro witness an applicant’s talent before his implicit associations about women could surface. In the end, he hired the best person for the job. A good screen of a candidate can help you do the same. Start with detailed lists of questions that help sell a hiring manager on the best available candidate before any biases can surface (conscious or unconscious).
  • Change how you approach your sourcing efforts. Proactively reaching out to diverse candidates is not a luxury, nor is it an occasional ad in a diversity publication. Surprisingly, a relatively untapped resource in diversity sourcing is referrals. Many companies are afraid that referrals can actually lead to a lack of diversity. If you have found this to be true, it is likely not a problem with referrals in general. Instead, it might be a problem with how you approach and solicit referrals.
  • Diversify your recruiting and hiring teams. If you’re serious about recruiting diverse candidates, look around the room (or over the cube). Are most of your recruiters one race, ethnicity, or gender? Do they represent a true diversity of backgrounds and ideas? Your team can have a very profound impact on how hiring decisions are made.
  • Experience a diversity of culture. One way to minimize your own implicit biases is to seek out and experience other cultures inside and outside of the office. This might be as simple as going to a parade, visiting a neighborhood, or attending an affinity group meeting. You might be surprised what you learn ó about yourself and others.

Do all of the above, and you’ll know what Gladwell meant in his parting shot from SHRM. “If you can change how decisions are made, it’s the difference between an orchestra that thinks it’s world class and one that actually is world class.”

Dave Lefkow is currently the CEO of talentspark (, a consulting firm that helps companies use technology to gain a competitive advantage for talent, and a regular contributor to ERE on human capital, technology, and branding related subjects. He is also an international speaker on human capital trends and best practices, having spoken in countries as close as Canada and as far away as Malaysia and Australia. His consulting work has spanned a wide variety of industries and recruiting challenges with companies like Starbucks, Boeing, HP, Microsoft, Expedia, Washington Mutual, Nike and Swedish Medical Center.