How emotions may result in hiring, workplace bias

July 6, 2018 by Melissa De Witte, Stanford University
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Job applicants who want to appear calm and collected might be at a disadvantage. According to a new Stanford study, American employers are more likely to favor excited over relaxed candidates.

This is one of several findings psychology Professor Jeanne Tsai and former graduate student Lucy Zhang Bencharit reveal in a paper published July 5 in Emotion that examines how the cultural differences of how emotions are displayed could bias hiring decisions.

"Given how diverse our workforce is and how global our markets are, it's important to understand how might influence emotional preferences in employment settings," said Tsai, who directs the Culture and Emotion Lab in the Psychology Department at Stanford's School for Humanities and Sciences.

The paper's co-authors also include scholars from the City University of Hong Kong, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Northwestern University and the Environmental Defense Fund.

Putting your best face forward

People's behavior can be influenced by the emotional states they value and want to feel – what Tsai calls their ideal affect. It's how a person wants others to see them, even if they might not feel that way, like trying to appear at ease at a job interview (when the person really is a ball of nerves).

But as Tsai has found in prior research studies, the emotions people value, and in turn display, vary across culture. How might these cultural differences influence candidates and their hiring managers on job interviews?

To find out, the researchers conducted five studies that included a total of 1,041 participants in five different workplace scenarios. In four of the studies, the scholars compared European Americans and Asian Americans living in the United States with Chinese living in Hong Kong.

In one experiment, participants were asked to imagine they wanted a competitive internship. They were then asked to fill out an application, including a video introducing themselves. At the end of their application, they were asked which emotions they wanted to convey.

The researchers found that what is interpreted as the "best impression" varies from person to person and from culture to culture.

European Americans were more likely to convey excitement and enthusiasm than Hong Kong Chinese, who desired calm and even-tempered states.

In their first study with 236 participants, 86 percent of European Americans and 72 percent of Asian Americans wanted to convey excitement rather than calm. In comparison, only 48 percent of Hong Kong Chinese wanted to show excitement, said Bencharit.

These values were also reflected in their applications. For example, European Americans were more likely than Hong Kong Chinese to show their excitement with phrases like "I'm really enthusiastic about this position" and "I am passionate about the work."

"How we want to feel and what our culture tells us is the right way to be influences how we present ourselves when we are applying for a job," said Tsai about their findings.

So how do potential employers respond to candidate emotions?

In another experiment, Tsai and Bencharit told participants to imagine they were hiring an intern. They then had to rate qualities the perfect candidate should have. The researchers found that European Americans wanted applicants to show excitement, but Hong Kong Chinese preferred calm. Asian Americans fell in between the two groups.

In another study, the researchers presented employees at a U.S. company with a similar scenario. They were shown video applications from three candidates who all had the same level of qualifications. But one candidate was animated and excited, another calm and a third neutral.

Of the 300 participants, 47 percent favored the excited applicant, whereas only 23.7 percent liked the calm candidate. 29.3 percent chose the neutral one.

"In the U.S., career counselors and job advisers often tell applicants to be excited and enthusiastic when applying for jobs," Bencharit said. "It is important to recognize that this message is shaped by our culture, and it may not be right or feel natural for everyone."

The problem with "cultural fit"

Could cultural preferences of emotion lead to hiring biases? The researchers think so.

"People think that their gut feelings say something about the other person's character, but our data suggest that people's gut feelings also say something about the culture that they themselves come from," said Tsai.

Tsai and Bencharit have concerns about the increasing trend of hiring employees who share the values of the company's existing workforce. That is, selecting employees based on their "cultural fit."

"One problem with hiring for cultural fit is that employers assume that is the only way to thrive at their organization," Bencharit said. "However, in work settings, there are many tasks in which a calm and level-headed employee may out-perform an excited and passionate one."

The desire for cultural fit could also lead to less diverse workplaces, warn the scholars.

"Hiring for cultural fit unfairly disadvantages some groups over others. Those who have less experience with American workplaces, like recent immigrants, may be most disadvantaged in the interview and hiring process," Bencharit said.

Tsai believes their research might also provide a possible explanation of the "bamboo ceiling," a phenomenon that describes how in American corporate culture, Asian Americans often stall in middle management and rarely make it to top leadership positions.

"We've been interested in why this bamboo ceiling exists, and we think it might be because many Asian Americans value calm states and associate good leadership with those qualities," she said. "But mainstream American culture associates good leadership with being excited and enthusiastic."

"If we really want to benefit from diverse workplaces, then we have to broaden our views of what emotional qualities we look for in the ideal applicant," said Tsai.

Explore further: Americans embrace positive feelings, while Chinese prefer a balance

More information: Should job applicants be excited or calm? The role of culture and ideal affect in employment settings.

Related Stories

Americans embrace positive feelings, while Chinese prefer a balance

July 3, 2015
European Americans prefer positive feelings over negative ones while Chinese tend to experience a balance between the two, new Stanford research shows.

Culture factors into why we like or dislike people, new research shows

November 25, 2015
Culture may play a key role in whether people "like" or "don't like" others, new Stanford research shows.

People from different cultures express sympathy differently, say researchers

March 26, 2015
Sympathy is influenced by cultural differences, new Stanford research shows.

Psychologists examine how culture can guide giving

June 2, 2017
How can culture influence giving? Some scholars have argued that people are more likely to share with others who are similar in terms of race or sex, but the evidence for this is mixed.

Emotional fit important between patient and doctor, research shows

April 3, 2015
A good bedside manner does count after all, new Stanford research shows.

Recommended for you

Researchers identify marker in brain associated with aggression in children

September 26, 2018
Imagine a situation where one child is teasing another. While the child doing the teasing means it playfully, the other child views it as hostile and responds aggressively.

Sensitive babies become altruistic toddlers

September 25, 2018
Our responsiveness to seeing others in distress accounts for variability in helping behavior from early in development, according to a study published September 25 in the open-access journal PLOS Biology by Tobias Grossmann ...

Evidence that increased BMI causes lower mental wellbeing

September 25, 2018
There is an increasing need to prevent obesity because of the consequences for mental as well as physical health, new research by academics at the University of Bristol has found.

Insomnia symptoms, overall health improve with online insomnia program

September 25, 2018
Treating insomnia with digital programs can improve insomnia symptoms, daytime functioning and overall health, a new study from the University of Oxford and Northwestern Medicine has found.

Researchers reveal link between hunger and mood, new study

September 25, 2018
It seems "hangry" isn't just a made-up term.

Baby sleeping in the parental bedroom not related to later behavioural problems

September 25, 2018
Sleeping in the parental bedroom as a baby is not related to sleeping problems or behavioural problems later in life. Moreover, there are indications that room-sharing may even be related to positive outcomes, such as improved ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (1) Jul 06, 2018
This is among the most ridiculous articles I've encountered on this site. What factors are significant in a job interview depend on the specific job and the hiring organization. Generally, confidence in one's ability to do the job, combined with a positive attitude, and the ability to convince the interviewer that you are more likely than not being honest, will put you in the running for a job. I say this as a formerly very successful candidate, and as a former interviewer, now happily retired for the last 3 years. But who knows, nowadays perhaps you need to have a music video or a million views on YouTube.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.