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Can Seeking Certain Traits in Employees Lead to Bias?

"In the U.S., career counselors and job advisers often tell applicants to be excited and enthusiastic when applying for jobs, but it's important to recognize that this message is shaped by our culture, and it may not be right or feel natural for everyone.”

It seems to be a common preference across all types of companies that job candidates should be enthusiastic.

But that trait could, in fact, lead to cultural bias. A study from Stanford University concluded that qualified candidates from cultures that don’t favor showing overt displays of enthusiasm might be overlooked.

Lucy Zhang Bencharit, a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Stanford Culture and Emotion Lab, which is housed in the Psychology Department at Stanford’s School for Humanities and Sciences,  said that the studies “suggest that people may use emotional cues to decide whom to hire, which may lead to unintentional disparities in hiring practices," as reported by Dinah Brin on the Society for Human Resource Manager.

"These findings support our predictions that culture and ideal affect shape behavior in employment settings and have important implications for promoting cultural diversity in the workplace," the researchers said in an article published online last month in Emotion, an American Psychological Association peer-reviewed journal.

In fact, researchers said that employers might be unaware of their own preferences for certain characteristics which would alter whether or not the judge applicants as qualified for jobs.

“In the U.S., career counselors and job advisers often tell applicants to be excited and enthusiastic when applying for jobs,” Bencharit said. “It is important to recognize that this message is shaped by our culture, and it may not be right or feel natural for everyone.”

Among the study findings:

  • Americans of European ancestry wanted to convey "high arousal positive states" (excitement) more often and "low arousal positive states" (calm) less than did Hong Kong Chinese job applicants.
  • European Americans used more excitement-oriented wording in their applications and showed more high-intensity smiles in introductory videos than did Hong Kong Chinese.
  • European Americans rated their ideal job applicant as being more excited and less calm than did Hong Kong Chinese.
    Asian Americans, like European Americans, wanted to convey excitement in their job applications more than Hong Kong Chinese. Asian Americans expressed more excitement than Hong Kong Chinese, but not as much as European Americans.

A particular concern in the U.S. business community is the  “bamboo ceiling,” a phenomenon that describes how Asian Americans often stall in middle management and rarely make it to top leadership positions.

“We’ve been interested in why this bamboo ceiling exists, and we think it might be because many Asian Americans value calm states and associate good leadership with those qualities,” said Jeanne Tsai, who directs the Culture and Emotion Lab “But mainstream American culture associates good leadership with being excited and enthusiastic.”

Tsai suggests that given how diverse our workforce is and how global our markets are, “it’s important to understand how culture might influence emotional preferences in employment settings.”

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