Blink and Diversity Recruiting

In Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent new book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, he demonstrates that the power of our unconscious biases is often greater than that of our conscious beliefs. What we believe is frequently overshadowed by assumptions we’re often unaware we’re making. Like it or not, this spills over into almost all of our hiring decisions, and it can affect how we interview and perceive diverse candidates. Why Do We Hate Short People? What if I told you that companies regularly discriminate against short people when they are hiring top executives? That’s ridiculous, right? Yes, some companies may discriminate by race, sex, or ethnicity, but surely our “vertically challenged” friends don’t need protected-class status! Yet some level of bias clearly exists. An excerpt from Blink on the “tall CEO” phenomenon:

I polled about half of the companies on the Fortune 500 list ó the largest corporations in the United States ó asking each company questions about its CEOs. The heads of big companies are, as I’m sure comes as no surprise to anyone, overwhelmingly white men, which undoubtedly reflects some kind of implicit bias. But they are also virtually all tall: In my sample, I found that on average CEOs were just a shade under six feet. Given that the average American male is 5’9″, that means that CEOs, as a group, have about three inches on the rest of their sex. But this statistic actually understates matters. In the U.S. population, about 14.5 percent of all men are six feet or over. Among CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, that number is 58 percent. Even more strikingly, in the general American population, 3.9 percent of adult men are 6’2″ or taller. Among my CEO sample, 30 percent were 6’2″ or taller.

And this doesn’t just affect the corporate executive suite. Gladwell goes on:

Not long ago, researchers went back and analyzed the data from four large research studies that had followed thousands of people from birth to adulthood, and calculated that when corrected for variables like age and gender and weight, an inch of height is worth $789 a year in salary.

But I’m not a “heightist,” you argue. Some of my very best friends are quite short! In fact, just last Friday I just played cards with a group of pygmies. The challenge here is that you often “think without thinking,” meaning that some level of your unconscious slips into your conscious decision making. Unknowingly, such biases may be creeping into your hiring decisions. The following example is a startling example of this phenomenon in action. Listening With Your Ears: Mistakes We Make in Hiring Another striking example of unconscious discrimination can be found in classical music. For many years, orchestras were very male-dominated. This tendency was based on the assumption that female musicians were not anatomically equipped to play certain instruments at the same level as men. Until one day, the maestro of the all-male Munich Philharmonic erected a screen to conceal auditioning trombonists. One applicant stood out from all of the others ó and the musical director was shocked to learn that this person was a woman, not a man. By listening with his ears and not his assumptions, his group hired the first woman in the orchestra’s history. Do even the most enlightened of us make this same kind of mistake in our selection processes? Do we ascribe certain characteristics to individuals, not because of what they’re saying, but because of what they look like, where they come from, or even what school they went to? According to Gladwell, the answer is very often yes. He goes on to recount how he ó who is part African American ó took an online psychological experiment called the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which told him that he unconsciously has a preference for Caucasians to African Americans. (If you’re interested in taking the test yourself, click here. I took the test and must say that I was surprised with my own preferences.) What You Can Do About It At the SHRM conference last week in San Diego, I listened to Gladwell speak passionately about the orchestra maestro, his own implicit associations, and the “tall CEO syndrome.” My takeaway from his talk was that a recruiting team’s job is not to change hearts and minds, since you are very unlikely to have an impact in this area. Where you are likely to have an impact, says Gladwell, is where you can change the context and structure of how decisions are made. Police, for example, are starting to ban high-speed chases in many locations because they feel that they present a poor context in which to make decisions ó and usually have disastrous consequences for the officers, the perpetrators, and the public at large. There are several context-changing opportunities in which recruiters can minimize the impact of split-second and implicit associations. For example, you have the power to:

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  • Build effective “screens” between your hiring managers and your candidates. A screen helped the maestro witness an applicant’s talent before his implicit associations about women could surface. In the end, he hired the best person for the job. A good screen of a candidate can help you do the same. Start with detailed lists of questions that help sell a hiring manager on the best available candidate before any biases can surface (conscious or unconscious).
  • Change how you approach your sourcing efforts. Proactively reaching out to diverse candidates is not a luxury, nor is it an occasional ad in a diversity publication. Surprisingly, a relatively untapped resource in diversity sourcing is referrals. Many companies are afraid that referrals can actually lead to a lack of diversity. If you have found this to be true, it is likely not a problem with referrals in general. Instead, it might be a problem with how you approach and solicit referrals.
  • Diversify your recruiting and hiring teams. If you’re serious about recruiting diverse candidates, look around the room (or over the cube). Are most of your recruiters one race, ethnicity, or gender? Do they represent a true diversity of backgrounds and ideas? Your team can have a very profound impact on how hiring decisions are made.
  • Experience a diversity of culture. One way to minimize your own implicit biases is to seek out and experience other cultures inside and outside of the office. This might be as simple as going to a parade, visiting a neighborhood, or attending an affinity group meeting. You might be surprised what you learn ó about yourself and others.

Do all of the above, and you’ll know what Gladwell meant in his parting shot from SHRM. “If you can change how decisions are made, it’s the difference between an orchestra that thinks it’s world class and one that actually is world class.”

Dave Lefkow is currently the CEO of talentspark (, a consulting firm that helps companies use technology to gain a competitive advantage for talent, and a regular contributor to ERE on human capital, technology, and branding related subjects. He is also an international speaker on human capital trends and best practices, having spoken in countries as close as Canada and as far away as Malaysia and Australia. His consulting work has spanned a wide variety of industries and recruiting challenges with companies like Starbucks, Boeing, HP, Microsoft, Expedia, Washington Mutual, Nike and Swedish Medical Center.


9 Comments on “Blink and Diversity Recruiting

  1. Congratulations to Dave on a GREAT article. One of the best I have read on ERE thus far!It?s a must read for anyone truly interested in equal opportunity.

    As a vertically challenged individual myself, I have seen first hand some of the less obvious biases people face. Attractive people often fare better than those among us who are not, particularly in an interview situation. Thin people do better than heavier people. And of course, Blondes have more fun….

    Until we come to grips with our own unconscious biases we are likely to make at least some of our decisions based on these preferences. Unless we tackle them and those of our recruiting staff we will never really have a level playing field.

  2. I believe there is a bias when it comes to height… this happens as children on the playground, in assigning children for parts in a play (taller get to play the grown ups), in dating (natural selection shows women find taller more attractive)…. The shorter male has likely dealt with more rejection by adulthood than the taller one…

    So by the time a Man has grown, perhaps it is not just the interviewer with the bias but the candidate themselves…

    Does the vertically challenged man have less confidence? Does he project less ‘power’ verbally as opposed to just height?

    Just a different angle…

  3. Wonderful article and excellent analogies throughout. The background conversations that we have that speak our biases towards or against something cultural, ethnic, racial, etc. are so vital to understanding our barriers to a truly culturally competent and diverse workforce and work environment.

    Thanks for connecting the concepts so practically and eloquently.

  4. Excellent points.

    I have wondered for some time, why hundreds of thousands of already successful individuals would line up to appear on ‘The Apprentice’?

    If I’m going to go on a game show … it will be to one a million dollars outright … NOT to have to WORK for $250k … I already know how to work.

    My son asked me ‘dad would you go on that show?’. I said ‘NO. Dad is already confident with his achievements and success and has nothing he needs to prove to the Trump organization’.

    It boggles my mind … that supposedly intelligent professionals would line up to work for a company that has been marginally successful at best, has been bankrupt twice, its flagship Casino unit is in RUINS, it stiffs bond and stock holders, and the chairman lets his sexual urges result in the destruction of more hundreds of millions everytime a girl bats her eyelashes.

    Yet … we glamorize the company simply because the CEO is ‘Telegenic’ and ‘Looks Good’ on T.V.

    There are many far better managed companies where people would learn much more … Black & Decker is one that comes to mind … but hey, Donald looks good on TV

  5. I?m familiar with the Blink concept and it?s linked to our survival mechanism. The mind rapidly processes people when we first encounter them to determine ?friend or foe?, like or dislike based on a combination of previous experience and thousands of years of programming.

    You see the height phenomenon in sales; many companies wind up hiring people that are former athletes who tend to be larger, taller than the population norms. I?m 6?1? and it does play to your advantage.

    Exposing yourself to other cultures to desensitize yourself to silo recruiting is an excellent tool.
    In 2005 I consciously attended several Middle Eastern dance recitals to expose myself to other cultures in terms of dress, music, traditions and it was exceptionally eye opening for me. I remember at one of the recitals watching a Turkish gentlemen who was very into the music of the dancers on the stage. Some people would have probably thought, ?Wow, he is really into this music and it does nothing for me.? Then I thought I wonder what would happen if we took this same Turkish gentlemen and placed him in the audience at Buddy Guy?s blues club on Wabash Street in Chicago. He would probably look at all the people screaming their appreciation of Buddy Guy playing the blues and say ?Wow, those people are really into this blues music and it doesn?t do anything for me.? It?s all a matter of perspective and the experiences you bring to the table.

    The person I?m dating now is from Sri Lanka and her frame of reference combines British, Indian, Buddhist and Christian influences. Very different from my rural VA, upbringing.

    These experiences left me with a far greater appreciation of how those cultures can bring very fresh perspective to situations and problems, which are immensely valuable. Of course that value is never realized if a hiring manager is refusing to hire someone because they didn?t make eye contact during the interview. The person was Indian and that would have been considered rude.

    My two takeaways here are we do have deeply engrained bias and we need to consistently attempt to be aware of those blind spots so they do not impair our ability to bring the best talent to the organization and it would probably do us all some good to place ourselves in unfamiliar territories to heighten our ability to connect with people from other cultures. That skill, I believe will become increasingly more significant over time.

  6. Russ, I think you have a very valid point and one that the world would do well to focus more on. In response to your comment about athletes/ height… I actually read an article the other day about that as well– and I wonder, does it really have anything to do with ‘companies hire taller people for executive roles/ atheletic people for sales roles’ or is it just a matter of the confidance that former athletes tend to have due to their teamwork/ training/ stardom. And perhaps taller people are more successful because they are consistently viewed as more successful, and the way they are viewed and stereotyped has engrained itself into their own self image, resulting in their acting in a successful way and creating success for themselves. Basically: you see me as successful, and I will be successful. You see me as incompetent, and I will be incompetent.

    By the way, I’ve been trying to get into KPMG as a 3rd party recruiter for a while now… any advice?

  7. Very Interesting stuff … I never finished Blink but did get to read some pages within it.

    To be fair, Blink also presents equally compelling evidence that our ‘gut feelings’ are often CORRECT yet you failed to mention that aspect.

    I cite the specific example of the Paul Getty Museum’s purchase of an expensive statue that those without any scientific evidence in their possession felt was a fraud … which was proven true later … in direct contrast to the ‘expert and substantiated mounds of evidence’ that was an original statue.

    But that’s not why I’m posting … on the subject of height discrimination … this poses an interesting observation:

    Are those HIRING discriminating against short people that could just as easily do the job?

    OR …

    Is it that the general employee population would not hold as high regard for a short person thereby FORCING the board of directors to hire a tall person or risk having an ineffective leader that can not garner respect (not because of the BOARD’s bias … but because of the inherit BIAS of the EMPLOYEE POPULATION!!??)

    Hmmmmm ….

    In other words we may have a Chicken Versus Egg conundrum.

    James Madison our second president knew by writings in his diaries that he ‘… may not have the stature of his predecessor’ referring to Washington who was 6 ft 3. He realized when announcing candicacy for president he was ‘vertically challenged’ and also lacking the actor-like charismatic charm of George Washington who was nearly impossible to not like in his day and age.

    Yet James was a brilliant man, considered the most successful attorney in New England of his time, and the Father of the Bill of Rights, and a genius in dealing with Britain’s continuing bullying during the war of 1812 (yes he got the White House burned down but it resulted in a stronger federal union afterwards which may have been a contributing factor as to why we’re not using confederate money today).

    While James was considered a sad statement of a man compared to the tall, elegant, handsome, G.W. … His wife Dolly who introduced ice cream to the public was a smash hit of her time equivelant to Jackie O. To the contrary, Martha Washington is very little spoke of being only four foot and change in height. We all know Dolly Madison ice cream … but are hard pressed to think of a contribution of Martha.

    So height may not be the issue … PERCEPTION is the issue. James knew full well he was as smart if not smarter (being a lawyer) than Washingon himself. He also knew however, that leadership required garnering those that will follow … hard to do when you’re short but doable.

    We may still be using pre-historic, genetically-encoded out-dated and ancient instincts to judge which in a modern society not requiring to hunt for survival any longer (not in the conventional sense anyway) and kill for meats are probably outdated instincts we can not shake off too easily.

  8. Frank –

    Even tho Madison was only #4, he got the girl, and Dolly was a lot better known in her time than Jackie O. Otherwise, Martha would have been very well remembered (she did a lot, too numerous to list). How about this one, –the shorter you are, the longer you live, and I’m not short.


  9. Jon – I could not resist again ( I really need to focus on work and not this!!)

    Although I’m average height … 5′ 9′ or thereabouts (can’t rem last time I even checked) … I did snag a first class wife myself 16 years ago who is my own version of ‘Dolly’ and Jackie O.

    And she never left my side once since.

    Without her … Frank would be a beach bum somewhere in Ft. Lauderdale or Marathon Key selling sea shells and tourist trinkets!!

    How’s that for a nice plug for the gorgeous and loving women in our lives that make it all possible for us chest-pounding gorillas??

    Nice touching ending to a thread as we’re sliding in to February and Valentines day soon!

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