A Point of View: Are Your Biases and Lack of Cultural Understanding Keeping Diversity Out?

Hiring managers are uniquely positioned in a way that they serve as the “gateway” into the organization. In other words, their role is to screen candidates and decide who is the best fit for the position. If organizations are striving for a diverse workforce, it is essential that hiring managers and individuals serving on hiring committees understand the role their biases play in hindering this process. That is because these individuals, whether they know it or not, evaluate candidates according to expectations formed by their own culturally-based and dominant value orientations. Here are some things to keep in mind in your next round of interviews:

Understand the impact unconscious bias plays in the hiring process

We all tend to “prejudge” individuals based on the groups to which they belong.  This prejudgment can be positive or negative, and oftentimes we are unaware of the role it is playing in the selection process.  We are all “hard-wired” to make unconscious decisions about others.  In fact, psychologists have confirmed it is virtually impossible to get rid of our tendency to make these implicit associations.  The problem with that is the fact that it prevents us from judging potential candidates for who they really are which, in turn, undermines our ability to be fair and equitable.  Many studies have confirmed the real-life consequences of implicit biases. In a study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the authors found that resumes with “typically white” names received 50% more callbacks than those with “typically black” names.  Even the average, “typically white” named candidates received more callbacks than the highly skilled “typically black” named.  As a hiring manager, you need to be aware of the fact that your biases may be playing a significant role in determining whether or not you will hire the most qualified candidate for the job.

Understand that there are many different communication styles, which means there is a lot of room for misinterpretation

Throughout my career, I have had the opportunity to sit in many hiring committees.  I have also facilitated many conversations about ways organizations and institutions exclude diverse groups.  I have seen time and again these exclusionary practices come alive during the interview process when candidates are evaluated negatively because of the way they speak or because of their communication style.

Nothing sets off alarm bells faster than a candidate with a language accent.  That is because accents have a tendency of being equated with a possible lack of English proficiency or lack of understanding.  While this may be true in some cases, the reality is that a candidate’s accent has very little to do with his/her ability to communicate.  In fact, what should be going through your mind is the fact that this candidate is at least bilingual, which means, in today’s shrinking world and increasingly global economy, this candidate could be a tremendous asset to the organization.

Silence and pauses during the interview are often misinterpreted.  For North Americans of European descent, for example, silence can feel very uncomfortable or awkward as it may signal a possible breakdown in communication.  Because of that, interviewers often feel compelled to fill those awkward moments with uncertainty-reduction strategies such as asking additional questions or making additional comments.  For many groups, though, silence is a way of communicating respect and deference and is an important aspect of their communication process.  The “silent” candidate may very well be trying to understand what is being said (e.g., translating) or taking time to formulate the best possible response.  Culturally competent hiring managers understand that silence communicates as much as the spoken word.  While pauses can sometimes indicate that something has gone wrong, it is possible that it is being utilized to achieve better communication.  The best strategy for hiring managers: become more comfortable with the absence of words during the interview, avoid interjecting, and give the candidate the time to formulate his/her best thoughts.

During an interview, short, direct, and concise answers are often expected and valued by hiring managers.  These are the candidates who are often judged to have “high intellectual aptitude”.  In North America, the preferred style of communication in most situations is the “direct style” where candidates tell it like it is, are less likely to imply and more likely to say what they are thinking.  Other candidates, however, may choose a more “indirect” approach and feel they can best express their ideas or address the issue at hand by telling a story.  This could potentially be a problem because hiring managers may assume the indirect communicator candidate has gone off on a tangent or lost his/her train of thought.  While individuals in all cultures may be more or less direct and the style they choose will depend on the context or situation at hand, it is important that hiring managers, at the very least, recognize style differences before evaluating a potential candidate negatively.  In other words, the way a candidate answers a question may have more to do with his/her thought pattern and communication style than with his/her ability to perform.

A few suggestions for hiring managers

No one can deny the demographic changes taking place in the United States.  In fact, the U.S. census bureau projects that by the year 2050 Americans of European descent will no longer be the numeric majority.  Organizations today are inching their way towards ensuring their workforce reflects this new demographic reality.  In every interview, hiring managers have to wrestle with the following dilemma: Am I bringing the best candidate in or am I aiming for (either consciously or unconsciously) a candidate who will best match existing organizational norms?  Values such as showing initiative, aggressively seeking a promotion, accepting public praise, speaking up in meetings, dealing with problems in an open manner, communicating directly are U.S. mainstream values.  A deviation from these values needs to be seen for what it really is: a difference in style and not inability to perform.  Truly inclusive environments allow for their workforce to be themselves.  In order words, candidates should not be expected to leave essential parts of their identity at the proverbial “company gate”.

In order to serve their organization well, hiring managers and those serving in selection committees need to be culturally competent.  That is, they need to a) be aware that differences exist (in self and others), b) have knowledge and understanding of what those differences are, and c) have the skills to adjust their way of thinking to the cultural orientation of others, be it a candidate’s nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, ability, or sexual orientation (Dreasher 2013).  If hiring managers do not notice, learn about, or respond appropriately to the diverse candidates knocking or their doors, they will be greatly jeopardizing their company’s ability to become a truly diverse and inclusive environment.  So before your next round of interviews, think about the following (adapted from Dreasher 2013):

  • What is my current level of cultural competence?
  • How does my worldview help or hinder my understanding of a candidate’s perspective?
  • How much awareness do I have of behaviors that have variable meanings? How might my awareness (or lack of awareness) of behavioral variety affect the way I evaluate potential job candidates?
  • What do I need to learn about a candidate’s cultural background to ensure I can relate and communicate effectively with him/her?
  • What biases do I have and how do they impact the way I evaluate candidates?


  • Bertrand, M, and Mullainathan, S. (July 2003).  Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 9873. Retrieved from www.nber.org/papers/w9873.
  • U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division (2010, June). Table 3. Annual estimates of the resident population by sex, race, and Hispanic origen for the United States: April 1, 2000 to July 1, 2009 (NC-EST 2009-30). Retrieved from www.census.gov/popest/ national/asrh/NC-EST2009/NC-EST2009-03.xls.
  • Dreasher, L. M.  (2013). Cultural competence in academic advising: Skills for working effectively across differences.  Pocket Guide Series (PG16).  Manhattan, KS: National Academic Advising Association.

About Luiza Dreasher

Luiza has over 20 years of experience in higher education and is very passionate about issues related to diversity, inclusion, and cultural competence development. She has presented extensively nationwide on topics such as contrasting U.S. American values with those of other cultures, challenges and opportunities of a culturally diverse workplace, building inclusive environments, communicating effectively across cultures, resolving conflicts effectively, understanding cultural differences, the impact of nonverbal behavior in communication, understanding the cultural adjustment process, and the importance of recruiting and retaining a culturally diverse workforce.

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