How bosses can shed prejudice

Companies risk letting the best job applicants pass by when they pigeonhole them through bias. But there are methods for escaping such mental straitjackets.

“It’s normal to make generalisations. This is a tool for orienting ourselves and learning. But the disadvantage of labelling people is that it limits everyone’s right to become what they wish to be,” says Economist Laura E. Mercer Traavik at BI Norwegian Business School.

“It’s discriminating. And the organisation misses a chance to gain necessary competence,” she says.

Common forms of stereotyping involve categorising one another according to gender, ethnicity and age.

And this is a two-way street.

“Leaders can often use a toolbox to avoid the stereotyping traps,” says Assistant Professor Laura Mercer Traavik. (Photo: Lise Stranden)

“If as a manager I think stereotypically in a biased way, I’m limiting the opportunities of prospective employees. If society thinks stereotypically of me as a woman, my opportunities decrease,” says Mercer Traavik.

Studies have shown that we are influenced by other people’s expectations of us.

“For instance, I know that I’m good at parking, even though I’m a woman and according to bias I should be lousy at it. But if I have someone behind me when I’m parallel parking, I think about the prejudice and I end up parking worse,” says Mercer Traavik.

Making poorer decisions

Prejudicial thinking can also be negative for managers of a firm who are recruiting new talent. 

“By categorising applicants before interviewing them, we risk making inferior decisions. We can lose the best candidate,” she asserts.

We can easily think that an elderly female job-seeker is less updated or that she will be requiring more sick leaves. The truth could be that she steadier on the job, as she doesn’t have young children to look after. And she has lots of time to develop her competence.

A study in 2012 showed that the names of applicants were crucial for their chances of being summoned to an interview for jobs in Norway. Foreign sounding names were weeded out of the stack of applications early on.

When the same applicants, with identical CVs, used Norwegian names, the chances of being called in for an interview ballooned.

“I react when somebody says to me that stereotyping isn’t really so bad. It is bad. It affects decisions and behaviour,” she says.

But tools can help circumvent such bias. Research also shows what can make bosses change their minds and think beyond the box.

1. Be aware of the trap

The first commandment is to be a conscious of the stereotyping traps we can fall into. Being aware that we tend to group people according to categories such as gender, age, ethnicity, etc. is an important initial step. 

“Once we are conscious of this, we can train ourselves to think differently and look for contrary information,” says Traavik.

2. Seek invalidation information

“We all have opinions about various nationalities. For example I have an image of the French as gourmands who spend hours at sidewalk cafés drinking coffee or wine,” she says.

When she visited Paris and made a conscious effort to tally Frenchmen who were out jogging, she was rather surprised. There were actually a lot of them out there exercising in their trainers.

“Managers should train themselves to look for contrary information,” she says.

Traavik encourages managers to contact such applicants and get acquainted with a mixed bag of people. Research shows that increased contact with diverse groups makes us less biased. An example is the meta-study conducted by Pettigrew and Tropp from 2006.

3. Standardised process

Use of standardised hiring processes with clear, comparable criteria for evaluations can keep gut feelings at bay.

This has been demonstrated in a doctoral dissertation by Sociologist Arnfinn Haagensen Midtbøen. He interviewed employers about why they refrained from calling in applicants with Pakistani names to job interviews.

4. Rules

Rules for how to seek information which is relevant to the job also have a preventive function, according to studies.

“It helps when firms have rules that are anti-discriminatory – ones that focus on recruitments being uninfluenced by age, sex and ethnicity have an educational effect,” says Traavik.


Read the Norwegian version of this article at

Translated by: Glenn Ostling

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