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Unconscious bias at interview: what candidates for PA jobs should know

RMS Bias

Test your own unconscious bias first by seeing if you can work out the answer to the following:

A father and son are involved in a traffic accident in which the father is killed and the son is seriously injured. The father is confirmed dead at the scene of the accident and is taken to the local mortuary. The son is taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital and immediately wheeled into theatre. A surgeon is called. Upon arrival in theatre, and seeing the patient, the attending surgeon cries, “Oh my God, it’s my son!”. The question is, who is the surgeon?

The answer: the surgeon is the boy’s mother. If you were one of the 40% of people who got this wrong, you can safely assume that the same unconscious bias may be operating at your interview for that PA job. The most common bias which is found in the workplace concerns gender, race and disability. Just ask black MP Dawn Butler how it felt to be told in the Westminster lift reserved for MPs that cleaners should use an alternative lift.

Unconscious bias is actually a crucial element of how we process the overwhelming amount of decision making we encounter on a daily basis and is a key survival technique. How else would cave men and women have known to pick the strongest, fittest mating partners to ensure the continuation of the human race?

So now we know it exists (in spite of companies best efforts in their diversity training and knowledge of employment law), how can you use this knowledge (that recruiters make judgements based on unconscious bias) to your advantage at interview?

  1. Research: ask the recruitment agency for a description of the office and the individuals who work there. Look at images on the website and social media for clues on dress, culture and style. Without compromising your individuality, try to base your appearance so that you look like you will fit in. 
  2. Finding common ground: look at the interviewers’ profiles on LinkedIn and other social media. Can you find something in their education and work background which overlaps with your own experience? It is proven that we pay more attention to what people say when we perceive a common interest.
  3. Reading the signs: study your interviewer's body language to gain a sense of what they are passionate about at work and invest more time explaining your attributes and experience which could contribute to their particular project. 
  4. The “halo” effect: there is usually one thing on your CV which stands out whether it be where you studied, the grades you achieved or your work experience. Try to focus on that aspect first so that the halo effect positively colours all your subsequent interview discussions.

In the meantime, it is important to understand that unconscious bias does not come from a place of bad intention, it is simply human nature. However, rest assured that all top recruitment agencies will welcome all candidates regardless of race, gender, age or background. Quite simply it is in recruitment agencies’ and companies’ best interests to embrace diversity as it opens up a wider pool of candidates resulting in the increased chance of filling the role with the best person suited to the role. Their job is to be aware of and eliminate unconscious bias. Your job is to use your knowledge of it to make the interviewer feel that it is worth investing in you further. 


The Guardian: How unconscious bias is holding women back at work

Social Talent: How badly is your unconscious bias affecting your recruiting skills

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