Job Search Bias: Is It Real or Just Your Imagination?


Have you ever wondered if you lost out on that great job opportunity because of something other than your impressive job qualifications? Then read on! This article is for you!

You may have already read a previous Tooling Up column on this topic. In it, Peter Fiske points out that negative bias is simply a part of the human condition. In fact, everyone has a set of perspectives based on their upbringing, education, and life experiences that biases their attitudes, actions, and decisions. Most of us are capable of setting aside these biases when it is necessary to evaluate individuals objectively. However, problems arise when personal biases turn into prejudice and lead to systematic and subjective discrimination against entire groups of people.

Job seekers who fall into one of the many categories of people who continually find themselves having to fight negative stereotypes know all too well that great credentials and exceptional past performance alone are not always keys to success. Instead, more subjective criteria can often turn out to significantly influence hiring decisions.

He Said, She Said ...

It can be very difficult to tell whether or not you have been discriminated against. With only subjective information to go on from both sides (which is usually the case), any discussion regarding real or perceived job search bias quickly breaks down into a "he said, she said" argument. For this reason, most people who feel they may have been turned down for a particular job due to bias do nothing about it ... they simply move on to the next challenge.

Legal Challenges

You don't have to take bias lying down. For those who would like to pursue a legal remedy for job search discrimination or any type of harassment once on the job, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the place to go. The mission of this government agency is "to promote equal opportunity in employment through administrative and judicial enforcement of the federal civil rights laws and through education and technical assistance." The EEOC was established by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and enforces the principal federal statutes prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of age, race, color, religion, sex, national origin, or disability. Individuals who believe they have been discriminated against in employment should begin the process of seeking a legal remedy for discrimination by filing administrative charges. All applicable forms can be found on the EEOC Web site.

A Toolkit for Job Seekers

Regardless of whether or not you choose to simply move on, the nagging question, "Was I judged only on my academic and professional qualifications and my ability to fit in with the group?" will not go away. The problem is that this question cannot be answered with any degree of certainty.

Instead, you should do what you can to prevent negative bias from rearing its ugly head in the first place. How? Arm yourself with knowledge that will help you to navigate the murky waters of job search bias. Learn how to decipher hidden cues that you are being given during interactions with potential employers. And avoid leaving yourself defenseless during the interview and, quite frankly, jobless afterward.

The purpose of this article, then, is to offer job seekers an intellectual toolkit comprising different perspectives that should help you deal with real or perceived bias during a job search.

Be Your Unbiased Best

One thing you need to understand is that the end result of your interactions with many of the people that interview you will depend on how you approach a particular situation or deal with a dilemma once it arises. Therefore, my first piece of advice would be for you to recognize what Fiske was driving at in his article: Bias and discrimination exist (and probably always will), so try to give each interviewer the benefit of the doubt. Not everyone is out to get you and, in fact, you should do as much as you can to avoid going into any interview with a chip on your shoulder from previous interactions in which you may have been wronged.

A perfect example would be a woman who had a sexist Ph.D. advisor and assumes by extension that most senior male scientists share his philosophy. No matter how easy it would be for this woman to adopt a "guilty before proven innocent" attitude in interactions with prospective (or actual) male bosses, she'd be much better served by allowing each person with whom she interacts in an interview situation a clean slate. Once she walks through the door into an interview, she should be ready to give each interviewer her unbiased best!

It's a Two-Way Street

Another valuable tool that you can use to your advantage in combating job search bias is to learn how to interview the company. In The Other Side of the Interview, Fiske shows that you can think of the job interview process as a two-way street. It is very important that you ask the right types of questions so that you can find out whether or not the company or institution with which you are interviewing is one that YOU want to work for. For instance, you might want to ask how "family friendly" the company is or whether or not attending scientific and professional conferences is encouraged by the hiring manager. If the interviewer answers your question before asking in return what organizations you belong to, let them know, let's say, that you belong to the National Society of Black Engineers and the Society of Women Engineers. Then listen carefully to their reaction. It will reveal a lot about their personal attitudes and biases, particularly if they follow up with an unsolicited word or two. And watch the interviewer's body language carefully, too. This might give some hint that the person you would be working for may be less than supportive of requests to attend meetings of this type because of their own personal biases.

In short, using carefully worded questions to probe into the inner workings of your interviewer's mind can often help you to discern whether or not she or he has preconceived notions about who you are as an individual within a certain group of people. You need to gather this kind of information BEFORE you consider accepting a job offer. Although you will not always be able to tell what a person is thinking, knowing how to elicit and decipher the hidden cues that you are being given during an interview is bound to help inform your opinion of the organization with which you're interviewing.

Keep It Legal

So far, I've been talking about some of the more subtle aspects of interviewing. But you should also know that it is flat out illegal to ask certain types of questions during an interview (see box). If you know what these questions are, then you'll be better prepared to steer the conversation in another direction should they come up. And whatever you do, don't bring these questions up yourself! An illegal question is illegal, no matter who asks it!

Illegal Interview Questions

Keep your ears open for the following, excerpted from

  • Questions related to location of birthplace, nationality, ancestry, or descent of applicant, applicant's spouse, or parents.

    (Example: "Pasquale--Is that a Spanish name?")

  • Questions related to your sex or your marital status.

    (Example: "Is that your maiden name?")

  • Questions related to race or color.

    (Example: "Are you considered to be part of a minority group?")

  • Questions related to religion or religious observations.

    (Example: "Does your religion prevent you from working weekends or holidays?")

  • Questions related to physical disabilities or handicaps.

    (Example: "Do you have any use of your legs at all?")

  • Questions related to health or medical history.

    (Example: "Do you have any preexisting health conditions?")

  • Questions related to pregnancy, birth control, and child care.

    (Example: "Are you planning on having children?")

  • Questions related to age.

    (Example: "Will your age affect your ability to perform this job?")

Often, ignorance or plain old curiosity (something to which scientists tend to be prone ...) is at the root of many of the illegal questions that might be asked during an interview--you shouldn't automatically assume that they have anything to do with the interviewer's prejudices. Nevertheless, the questions are still illegal and it is perfectly within your rights to refuse to answer them.

If you should choose to answer questions of this type, you must understand that doing so may affect the outcome of your interview in either a positive or a negative way. Answering personal questions can lead to a positive outcome as people often form bonds of familiarity based on similar life experiences. However, you must decide if this is a gamble you want to take. Honest answers to some illegal questions--those regarding your plans to start a family in the immediate future, for example--might lead the interviewer to draw negative conclusions about you that have absolutely nothing to do with your suitability for the job.

Minimize Bias Where You Can ...

It is every job seeker's responsibility to realize that biases exist and to learn how to deal with them effectively. It is my contention that you probably do not want to work for a company or institution that does not share your values, so learn the early warning signs of bias, intolerance, and their ugly cousin, indifference. You will save yourself a lot of heartache in the end. Also, realize that your own personal biases can sometimes interfere with your ability to correctly perceive an interviewer's intent, especially during a brief interview. It works both ways--it is very easy to see what you want to see during interactions with individuals whom you do not know.

The key to achieving successful interviews and, thereafter, a higher level of job satisfaction is to minimize these issues up front. That way, you can concentrate more fully on how your skills match the required job responsibilities, and not worry about whether or not you are being judged on something other than your outstanding abilities.

Science 's Next Wave's Guest Tooling Up Columnist, Dr. Sonya Summerour Clemmons, was the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in bioengineering from the University of California, San Diego, in December of 1999. Dr. Clemmons pursued graduate studies after completing undergraduate degrees in both physics and mechanical engineering at Spelman College and Georgia Tech, respectively, as an Atlanta University Center dual degree engineering major. After an extensive job search, Dr. Clemmons accepted a senior level biomedical engineering position with a San Diego biotech company. She also has founded SSC Enterprises, a consulting firm that aids government agencies, academic institutions, and companies in successfully recruiting, retaining, and transitioning students of color into fulfilling science and engineering careers. Dr. Clemmons can be reached by e-mail at

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