Avoiding Bias in the COVID-19 Era

Critics worry that video interviews during the pandemic may be inadvertently handicapping older candidates.



With all the terrifying headlines and health scares, the pandemic of 2020 was already giving him gray hairs. But it wasn’t until he set up a video call for a potential job that this 53-year-old engineer realized just how many he had.

In times when such things were possible, he used to quietly get his hair and beard colored and trimmed regularly by a professional, making him look a decade younger. But now, that wasn’t possible. And to make matters worse, he fumbled with the technology in ways that made him seem outdated. He worried: would his age this cost him the job?

It’s one thing to go into job interviews having a bad hair day, but some experts say that today’s shelter-in-place world may be creating yet another handicap for both male and female older candidates. Revealing a less-polished appearance is just part of it: most baby boomers aren’t nearly as comfortable as younger applicants with the technology of split-screen communication.

Certainly, the older generation been used to video communication nearly as long as millennials have. According to a 2019 survey, those over age 55 had increased their use of the technology at half the rate of those under that age. Few older candidates are as adept as their younger rivals at such basics as lighting and camera positioning, or using the technology to create connections with interviewers. “I suspect many people who are Gen X or older are struggling with feelings of getting old and fear becoming inadequate,” says Gabrielle Bill, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance.

To be sure, with millions now unemployed, new jobs are far and few between. But the fallout from the coronavirus is creating at least some new opportunities many people want a crack at. And video Interviews were already gaining traction among many recruiters because they can eliminate the expense of bringing candidates to the office. One 2019 survey indicated that 47% of big employers already use video interviewing for some roles, and experts agree that video calls will only increase during and after the pandemic. “Recruiters think it’s one of the best things that have ever happened. It will redefine the field of recruiting and will keep intensifying,” says Val Olson, a Korn Ferry Advance hiring coach.

Experts say that recruiters have a systematic video-interviewing process that can dampen bias. It allows multiple people in a hiring chain to see how an applicant reacts and answers to one set of questions. Since everyone sees the same video, there’s a much lower chance that the unconscious biases of one person will inadvertently disqualify an applicant. A video call can also help many applicants establish a deeper connection with the interviewers, which also can go a long way to reducing the impact of unconscious biases. That advice can apply to job interviews and any sort of video call.

“Have a sense of humor and recognize that you’re all in the same boat,” says Ilene Gochman, Korn Ferry’s global head of assessment and succession solutions.

In the current climate, experts say recruiters can show empathy with applicants and acknowledge the unique grooming situation. Recruiters should also have reviewed the candidate’s resume and ensure that there are no distractions—such as a cell phone—that could interrupt the interview.

Applicants don’t have much chance of avoiding a video interview if that’s what the recruiter wants, but they can use a couple of strategies if they’re particularly worried about unconscious bias. For one, the applicant could break the ice and mention how weird it must be for the recruiter to be interviewing so many people with unkempt hair or makeup. Job candidates also can prepare for the interview by practicing and dress appropriately.

Even perfectly coiffed candidates will have their age reasonably guessed by recruiters—all they have to do is see how long of an employment history they have, Olson says. “Age will come into play,” she says, “but the best thing you can do is show that your skills are up to date and that you are energetic.”