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Subtle Bias


How often is “cultural fit” a criterion you use to fill a position at your company?  

It’s very common for recruiting and hiring professionals to hire based on ‘cultural fit” and for other management to promote based on “cultural fit”.  Unfortunately, “cultural fit” is often based on biases and subtle stereotypes about candidates. “Fit” is not based on competencies and can very easily slide into stereotypes about protected classes – particularly age, race, national origin, sexual orientation, and (believe it or not, it still happens) sex. ‘Fit’ is an amorphous criterion. Can “cultural fit” be measured, observed, quantified?   In most cases – NO!   When we look for ‘fit,’ we’re excluding potential candidates. It’s a dangerous criterion when hiring or interviewing candidates.

The obvious workplace biases of the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s has largely been replaced by unconscious bias, which is far subtler and often difficult to recognize in ourselves and others.  Particularly when dealing with technology issues, it is very easy to deem an applicant who is over 40 as “not a cultural fit”. 

According to a Class Action lawsuit filed in 2015 against Google, Google’s workforce is “grossly disproportionate” with respect to age. The lawsuit asserts the median age of the 28,000 employees who worked for Google in 2013 was 29.  Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Labor reports the median age for computer programmers in the United States is 42.8 and the median age for software developers is 40.6

Google last year made a public commitment to increase race and gender diversity in its workforce, and released workforce statistics relating to those characteristics. But Google was completely silent with respect to age and did not release age-related statistics. It was as if Google’s position was that age is not a factor in workforce diversity.  You can see how an older worker could easily be considered not a “cultural fit” in a high-tech organization such as Google?


The California Supreme Court in 2010 reinstated an age discrimination lawsuit filed by former Google executive Brian Reid finding that Reid had presented sufficient evidence of age discrimination in his firing by Google in 2002.  Reid said Google colleagues referred to him as an “old man,” and “old guy,” and “old fuddy-duddy” and joked that his CD jewel case office placard should be an “LP”, not a CD. Google subsequently settled the case out of court.


This same type of subtle bias prevents women, minorities and others from landing jobs or moving ahead at a company.   Such hidden bias has been blamed for a largely male presence at the nation’s top technology companies. At Amazon, 61 percent of the workforce is male; at Microsoft, it’s 73 percent; at Intel, it’s 75 percent; and at Facebook, it’s 68 percent.

There are other biases based on weight, height, education, culture and experience. And then there’s one insidious bias—affinity bias—that almost all of us are guilty of.

Affinity bias refers to the tendency for one person to relate to—and advocate for—another because the two have a common bond. Maybe the two have mutual friends, go to the same church, have young children, went to the same college or enjoy the same hobbies.  Some “hobbies” are popular along racial lines.  

Following are some suggestions for avoiding hidden biases:

  • When someone suggests a candidate would be a good “fit,” challenge that person to be more specific. For instance, if a younger hiring manager prefers a younger candidate to an older one because the former is a good fit, “have them specify how, based on the job description, the candidate is a “better fit”.   Is it technological experience? Or is it because the team is younger? You don’t want to hire a younger person only to have them fail due to their lack of people skills.  
  • Consider assembling a hiring team of diverse company staffers who will collectively decide on a job applicant. Put someone in charge of pointing out when an interview question or a candidate assessment may be based on hidden biases.
  • Discuss with hiring managers what qualifications the company wants in its new hire based on competencies. Ask for these qualifications to be factual, based on data, and measurable, so that interviewers are less likely to be influenced by candidate attributes that are inconsistent with the competencies.
  • Point out affinity bias.  If you notice that the interviewer is close in age to one candidate, ask for specific, measurable attributes that are NOT based on age. Other than the hiring professional’s age, sex, race, or religion, what competencies does the candidate have that make you feel he or she is the best “fit” for this role?’ ”
  • Challenge the company to bring in candidates who are distinctly different from the majority of those at the workplace.

Be on the lookout for unconscious biases that surface in day-to-day interactions among employees: A woman presents an idea during a meeting and is ignored. But when her male colleague presents the same idea—perhaps in a more assertive and confident manner—he’s rewarded or promoted.

Some other ideas that will help stamp out subtle biases:

  • Before a meeting, ask for everyone’s suggestions in writing, which can diminish the tendency to overlook those who are introverted, or who aren’t as quick on their feet in group meetings.
  • Rotate meeting leadership roles so everyone has a chance to lead the meetings.
  • Speak out if a colleague’s contribution is ignored or dismissed.  Ask when you see an employee who no longer offers ideas in meetings, comment on it, “John has stopped presenting his ideas in team meetings.  Why is that?”
  • When a more assertive person echoes the idea of someone less extroverted, let the group know where the idea originated.

Be diligent, be on the lookout, and educate your employees about these subtle biases!