Distracted Interviewing: The Case of Facial Scars (IO Psychology)

Topic: Interviewing, Fairness
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (MAR 2012)
Article: Discrimination Against Facially Stigmatized Applicants in Interviews:
An Eye-Tracking and Face-to-Face Investigation
Authors: J.M. Madera, M.R. Hebl
Reviewed By: Ben Sher

It’s easy to imagine reasons why a job interviewer might be distracted: Workplace politics, trouble at home, unnecessarily detailed fantasies of winning the lottery, March Madness. But according to troubling new research by Madera and Hebl (2012), we can add one more thing to that list. If the person interviewing for the job has a facial scar, it could be enough to distract the interviewer and cause negative outcomes.

So how did they figure that out? The researchers conducted two experiments. The first experiment simulated job interviews by asking participants to look at a picture of an applicant while listening to a recording of an interview. Sometimes the applicant had a distinct facial scar and sometimes the applicant did not. Using high-tech eye-tracking equipment, the researchers found that when a job applicant had a facial scar, the participants spent more time looking at it then other parts of the face.

Well that doesn’t seem so surprising, right? But what happened next really stood out. Participants who were distracted by the scar recalled fewer facts about the applicant. When asked to rate the job applicants, remembering fewer facts led to lower ratings. Now you can see the problem.

To strengthen their case, the researchers repeated a similar study with participants who had managerial and interviewing experience. This time they used actors to play the role of job applicants, and applied an artificial facial scar in half of the trials. Again, the results were clear: When applicants had facial scars, their interviewers remembered fewer facts and provided lower ratings.

What does this mean? The authors note that distractions naturally compromise the integrity of job interviews, especially when these distractions lead to bias. For those of us who do conduct interviews, the authors discuss using structured interviews and careful note-taking as possible ways to remain as unbiased and factual as possible. They also add that sometimes mere awareness of possible sources of bias is the best way to avoid unfair outcomes.

Madera, J.M. & Hebl, M.R. (2012). Discrimination Against Facially Stigmatized
Applicants in Interviews: An Eye-Tracking and Face-to-Face Investigation. Journal of
Applied Psychology, 97(2), 317-330.

human resource management, organizational industrial psychology, organizational management