Hiring for ‘Excitement’ Can Lead to Culture Bias

Researchers believe that a cultural preference for enthusiasm could disadvantage Asian applicants, others

By Dinah Brin August 9, 2018
Hiring for ‘Excitement’ Can Lead to Culture Bias

​The common expectation that U.S. job seekers should smile and show excitement while interviewing for positions may seem innocuous, but new research from Stanford University suggests it can work against qualified applicants from cultures that don't value overt displays of enthusiasm.

Researchers from the Stanford Culture and Emotion Lab used multiple studies to explore whether cultural differences in "ideal affect"—the emotional states that people value and want to feel—are reflected in the way applicants present themselves in job interviews and in the qualities recruiters seek when hiring someone for a job.

These cultural differences could lead to disadvantages for Asians and Asian Americans in the U.S. labor market, researchers suggested.

"Our studies suggest that people may use emotional cues to decide whom to hire, which may lead to unintentional disparities in hiring practices," said the paper's lead author, Lucy Zhang Bencharit, a postdoctoral researcher at the Stanford lab.

Among the study findings:

  • Americans of European ancestry wanted to convey "high arousal positive states" (excitement) more often and "low arousal positive states" (calm) less than did Hong Kong Chinese job applicants.
  • European Americans used more excitement-oriented wording in their applications and showed more high-intensity smiles in introductory videos than did Hong Kong Chinese.
  • European Americans rated their ideal job applicant as being more excited and less calm than did Hong Kong Chinese.
  • Asian Americans, like European Americans, wanted to convey excitement in their job applications more than Hong Kong Chinese. Asian Americans expressed more excitement than Hong Kong Chinese, but not as much as European Americans.

"These findings support our predictions that culture and ideal affect shape behavior in employment settings and have important implications for promoting cultural diversity in the workplace," the researchers said in an article published online last month in Emotion, an American Psychological Association peer-reviewed journal.

Employers may be unaware of their own preferences for a certain affect and how it might influence their decisions, and therefore may judge applicants as unqualified without realizing that those job seekers value different "affective states," the researchers said.

The study's finding that Asian Americans appear to express less excitement than other candidates could place them at a disadvantage in applying for U.S. jobs "and may be one reason Asian Americans are less likely to be hired and to attain leadership positions compared with their European American peers," the paper said.

"We were motivated to conduct this research after seeing the overwhelming number of articles in the U.S. in which students are advised to 'be excited' during job applications and interviews," Bencharit told SHRM Online.

"I often hear from my undergraduate students—particularly students of color—that they need to 'turn on' being excited in job interviews and that it is not something that comes naturally," she added.

Similarly, Jeanne Tsai, a professor of psychology at Stanford and the director of the culture and emotion lab, said faculty colleagues have told her about top Asian American students who didn't do well in job interviews because of a perceived lack of enthusiasm and motivation.

"Although Asian Americans are viewed as the model minority, they [also] are often viewed as cold, stoic, passive and quiet, and these stereotypes may be one reason why Asian Americans are underrepresented in top leadership positions," she said.

Acting enthusiastic and changing facial expressions may not feel natural to everyone and could undermine students' motivation to apply for certain jobs, Bencharit noted.

"Businesses should recognize that their hiring practices may systematically bias them towards certain candidates. They may be missing out on valuable workers if they continue hiring based on emotional values," she said.

It's fine for employers to seek warm and friendly employees, Tsai said. "The problem is if they assume that everyone expresses warmth and friendliness in the same way. In the U.S., employers may think that only excited applicants are warm and friendly, but they would be wrong, especially when they are interviewing applicants who come from cultures that value excitement less," the professor said.

[SHRM members-only online discussion platform: SHRM Connect]

Awareness Is Important

Tim Sackett, SHRM-SCP, president of Lansing, Mich.-based IT and engineering staffing firm HRU Technical Resources, wasn't surprised by the findings and said cultural biases can affect applicants of any background seeking employment outside their home countries.

"The majority of U.S. hiring managers look for 'energy,' enthusiasm and overall positive outlook when looking at characteristics they want in a hire." On the other hand, "an American candidate would be at a disadvantage if displaying these traits in front of a Chinese hiring manager," Sackett said.

"Most hiring biases are unintentional by nature," he continued. "We are raised, trained and grow up in certain environments that give us biases we don't even realize. Cultural hiring biases, then, become fairly common."

The problem is a "human nature issue" and is not limited to hiring managers or certain countries, he said. "It's not just American hiring managers being biased towards foreign workers. We also see foreign hiring managers being biased towards other foreign workers who are not from the same part of the world they are from. Hiring managers tend to be most comfortable hiring those who are most like them, which, of course, is the problem we are trying to solve."

The key is awareness, he added. Measurement and education, and a talent acquisition process with subjective criteria, will help organizations and hiring managers make the best decisions possible.

While the findings weren't surprising, Kristin Lewandowski, vice president of client success at Boston-based recruiting firm FoundHuman, considers it a generalization that all U.S. hiring managers want excited employees.

"Excitement is just a piece of the puzzle," said Lewandowski, who recruits mostly for tech startups. "Excitement doesn't mean authenticity and, really, employers are looking for someone who's more authentic, who can get behind the mission."

Lack of excitement on an initial call isn't going to disqualify a candidate in the tech field—provided he or she has experience and skills to function within the team—as it would someone who is dealing with customers and needs to "wow" with personality, she explained.

People can show they're "mission-centric" in other ways, she said, such as demonstrating experience in a field.

"We've all worked with somebody who might not be the most social person, but they're incredibly good at what they do."

Dinah Wisenberg Brin is a freelance journalist and former Associated Press and Dow Jones Newswires staff reporter based in Philadelphia.



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