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Employment – Fit, Bias, and Overcoming

I teach a course on professionalism. The course covers etiquette, personal motivation, career paths, networking, interviewing, and other things. The most impactful topic that we cover, and one that appears throughout the course, is “fit”. You can see our explanation of fit in our article, Competence and Fit.

I explain the concept in terms of how experience shapes our perception of others. Notably, I explain how implicit bias can cause us to gravitate toward one individual over another. That is, we are more likely to associate with individuals who share our common interests, beliefs, and values. We develop predispositions regarding the characteristics of individuals who we believe will share these attributes. This includes things like, gender, skin color, religion, ethnic background, dress, manner of speech (word choice and accent), etc.

I explain career development in terms of opportunity. You can read more about this topic in our article, Opportunity Generation, Recognition, and Exploitation. An integral part of opportunity creation regards interacting with others. So often, other people play a primary role in the opportunities that we generate (or that present themselves). The nature and depth of relationship with third parties contributing to the opportunity generation is a highly influential.

The business world readily accepts the influence of fit in one’s decision making for who to hire or promote. Many who study business has hear of the “Airport Test”. This concept basically says that an employer is more likely to hire or promote someone who the would not mind being stuck in a terminal with if their flight is delayed. It simply restates that we gravitate toward individuals who make us comfortable.

For those who look to fit well with others, there is an abundance of material (free and paid) available that is focused on the point. When teaching resume and cover letters, networking, and interviewing, I provide commonly understood methods of achieving fit in the modern-day work environment. Some of these include:

  • Creating an Emotional Debt – An emotional debt ties someone emotionally to you. It makes them want or feel obligated to help you. Some common techniques include Social Cues (smile, eye contact, gestures) and Engagement (Attentiveness & Energy).
  • Comfort & Mutual Understanding – This regards the effort each person puts into the relationship to understand the other person and be understood. Communications are more streamlined and efficient. It allows someone to let down the emotional guard. Some techniques are demonstrating commonality of interests (sports, hobbies, etc.), beliefs (logical, religious, political), and values (family & friends, winning, equality, contentment, happiness, etc.).

Succinctly put, you are often forced to assimilate with others in order to facilitate the creation of opportunities. This can mean beginning to act, speak, dress, pursue interest, etc., of your managers, co-workers, classmates, etc.

Searching for Diversity

Assimilation can be very difficult for those who come from certain backgrounds – particularly those with little exposure to others outside of their respective background and for those who their characteristics carry a negative stereotype (think tendencies toward racism and classism).

To quote Albert Einstein, “Common sense is a collection of prejudices established by the age of 18”. We all have prejudices or biases – both conscious & unconscious. Stereotyping is a product of unconscious bias. We make assumptions about individuals based upon our formative influences. That is, we assume an understanding of someone based upon our past experience and/or acquired knowledge concerning our interactions with others who share their characteristics. Think of all of the influencers in life (Family and Friends, Society, Religion, Laws, Advertising, Personal Observations). Sometimes these biases can be positive (help us avoid danger) and sometimes negative (we make inaccurate assumptions that hurt others). There are certainly negative attributes of fit-based bias that surface in employment and hiring practices.

Fortunately, personal interaction provides an opportunity to overcome these initial mental impressions when they are negative. It requires concerted effort to recognize prejudices and reinforce positive assumptions. Individuals must specifically work to alleviate concerns over negative assumptions.

I do have to note that there are forces at play in the business world that counteract this engrained bias towards those similar to ourselves. Most companies underage some form of diversity, equality, and inclusion training. Other companies have specific policies in place to counteract historical tendencies toward homogeneity in hiring and recruiting. For example, the push for workforce diversity has caused an active effect to recruit more women and minorities. This is a positive step to minimize the discriminatory impact of implied bias – but it is just one step in the right direction. The remaining issue, however, is that we are not looking for complete diversity in our employees.

That is, employers are looking for females and minorities who have most closely assimilated to themselves (or their expectations). The effect is to provide a distinct advantage to individuals who suffer less disadvantage than others who, as a result of cultural aspects or indoctrination, are unable or unwilling to assimilate.

The very core of this line of this reality is troubling. First, there is something troubling about requiring an individual to abandon their individuality in order to assimilate to the dominant culture – which is largely white, protestant culture.

Second, any program that shows a level of favoritism is bound to cause resentment among the classes of individuals who are not advantaged by it. For example, the existence of white privilege (which is somewhat of a misnomer, as the privilege is more closely related with a specific socio-economic status of white person) is highly resented by the minority community. Likewise, affirmative action programs (both public and private) are resented heavily by uneducated white people from the lower socio-economic class.

I don’t have to elaborate that this level of contention does not serve the purpose of promoting equality of opportunity within a system that that suffers from the effects of implicit bias. For purposes of this article, I’m going to focus on the first issue – forcing a portion of the population to assimilate.

There are generally two manners of overcoming implicit bias without succumbing to forced assimilation:

  1. Enhanced awareness of the presence of implicit bias, and
  2. Simply not assimilating and, instead, creating opportunities through one’s own cultural groups.

Overcoming Through Awareness

From what we understand about implicit bias, the most effective method of minimizing its effect is to make individuals aware that they are affected by it. To the extent that someone is aware of their bias, they are more able (an generally willing) to consciously avoid it’s influence. This is generally referred to as mindfulness – in this case, in one’s decisions with regard to hiring, promotion, and other employment incentives or opportunities.

Absent a conscience recognition of implicit bias in our hiring decisions, assimilation by the job candidate is critical. If we seek employment, we will inevitably have to interview with individuals who have thoroughly assimilated to the company’s culture and expectations. However, individuals are heavily influenced by the individuals in our lives and the community in which we were raised. When the common practices visible in the community do not translate well across socio-economic cultures, it can detriment individuals in terms of opportunity generation through connection with others.

For example, many individuals from lower socio-economic neighborhoods have a distinct manner of speaking (word choice, accent, etc.) that is easily identifiable. Think about the differences in manner of speech, name, appearance, (dress, hairstyles, jewelry, tattoos, etc.).
These individuals may also be heavily influenced in their outlook toward value and possession. For example, individuals may choose to have an expensive vehicle rather than better living accommodations. In the same vein, it may influence the gravitation toward superficial symbols of wealth or adornments.

Equally at odds are cultural characteristics or manners of comporting one’s self in public. This may include loud talking in public, excessive bravado or brashness, public display designed to gain attention (ex. car modifications, load music, etc.).

Even those who are aware (woke – as is commonly used in popular culture) and are conscious to avoid active discrimination against these characteristic tendencies, have an implicit bias against it. Individuals aware of the implicit bias (and explicit) bias that exists against divers socio-economic classes, races, genders, ethnicities, orientations, etc., often voice concern over the bias and espouse the need for measure to combat them. These are the same individuals, however, who will move to a different neighborhood or avoid a school system where these cultural characteristics are present.

To summarize, implicit bias is not easy to overcome. If the ultimate mission is to create inclusion for those underserved or underrepresented in the workforce, mindfulness or the overall awareness of bias does not fully solve the problem. We are unconsciously driven toward individuals who have assimilated more fully to the dominant culture. This can create a barrier that is insurmountable for some.

Make it Your Own Way

Another method of overcoming the effects of implicit bias in the generation and creation of career opportunities is to forge one’s own path. If one thing is certain, success breeds imitation. Individuals who are able to achieve success without the need to assimilate to the dominant culture often become beacons of inspiration to those who are similarly unable, unwilling, or unaware of how to assimilate for the purpose of opportunity creation.

These individuals also become culture pioneers that facilitate the belief that the commonly accepted cultural norms of he workplace are not the only way. For example, the success of Apple and Facebook and the clothing choices of Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg altered our perception of what a CEO could look and act like. Individuals like Sean Combs (P Diddgy) and Carter (Jay Z) showed how individuals from a lower socio-economic demographic could, not only succeed in business, but could change the perception of what is required to become successful in a business world dominated by contrasting cultural norms.

Of course, achieving success in the business world is not easy. It may be yet more difficult to succeed when you are left to create your own opportunities without the assistance or influence of others. But, as we have seen, people and society change quickly. There will always be push back by those who do not or cannot relate to another’s cultural and demographic characteristics. While this course is difficult – it has never been more possible.

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