To try and avoid having interview candidate start every interview with the same "tell me your background" boilerplate, we get every interviewer in the room with the candidate at the beginning of the interview for a few minutes, so everyone can introduce themselves and the candidate can walk through their background.
Recently we had a minority candidate with a unique name come for an onsite interview. One person in the loop, who also has an untraditional name, asked "what's the worst butchering of your name you've ever heard?" Seems like an innocuous enough question, and it's possible the candidate didn't think twice about it.
But it stuck with me because of a paper I saw recently, and because we may have unknowingly implicitly activated a social identity. Cue the research:
Recent studies have documented that performance in a domain is hindered when individuals feel that a sociocultural group to which they belong is negatively stereotyped in that domain. We report that implicit activation of a social identity can facilitate as well as impede performance on a quantitative task. When a particular social identity was made salient at an implicit level, performance was altered in the direction predicted by the stereotype associated with the identity. Common cultural stereotypes hold that Asians have superior quantitative skills compared with other ethnic groups and that women have inferior quantitative skills compared with men. We found that Asian-American women performed better on a mathematics test when their ethnic identity was activated, but worse when their gender identity was activated, compared with a control group who had neither identity activated. Cross-cultural investigation indicated that it was the stereotype, and not the identity per se, that influenced performance.
The full paper is available here.
In the study, the researchers gave female Asian-American undergrads a math test. However, some were primed to think about the fact that they were women (via questions about whether they lived in a single-sex or coed dorm, and why they would prefer a coed or single-sex floor), and some were primed to think about the fact that they were Asian (via questions about whether their parents/grandparents spoke English, and how many generations they had lived in America). The female-primed group answered 43% of questions correctly, the neutral (no priming questions) answered 49% correctly, and the Asian-primed group answered 53% of questions correctly. That's a pretty large difference! The original study was replicated in 2014 and the same effects were found (on people who are aware of the stereotypes).
So back to our interview! It's possible that by asking a well-intentioned icebreaker question about the candidate's name, we were actually priming their racial identity, and leading them to do worse in an interview. We accidentally emphasized the difference between the candidate and ourselves (white people with names like "Kevin"). We talked about it afterwards, and shared around a link to the paper above, in the hopes that we are giving every candidate the same playing field.
This stuff is hard to get right, you have to think about it, and you have to be aware of the research. We're not perfect, but we know these effects exist and we're trying hard to fight them.
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