Getting your startup funded, snagging a juicy promotion or getting hired at a “best-place-to-work” company is a long shot these days. Stiff criteria and even stiffer competition can keep your dreams of launching a business or managing one just out of reach.
But are the reasons some of us don't get ahead always fair or even rational?
Bias, unconscious or not, often creeps into the decisionmaking that determines the fates and fortunes of entrepreneurs and aspiring executives.
See if one of these biases could potentially trip you up on the ladder to success.
Pardon my French. A recent study by Wharton management professor Laura Huang could spell bad news for English speakers with a non-native accent. In her paper in the Journal of Applied Psychology titled “Political Skill: Explaining the Effects of Non-Native Accent on Managerial Hiring and Entrepreneurial Investment Decisions,” Huang finds that entrepreneurs and aspiring executives with foreign accents are passed over for startup funding and management positions far more than their competition.
This xenophobia-tinted glass-ceiling is the result of the greater business community’s perception that non-native English speakers lack “political skill,” including “effective and competent communication” as well as “the ability to be perceptive and influence others,” according to Huang’s research.
Piling on to this bias is angel investor and co-founder of Y Combinator, Paul Graham, who recently said that one of the “tells” in determining whether a startup’s going to boom or bust is a CEO's foreign accent. Graham was quoted as saying, “One quality that's a really bad indication is a CEO with a strong foreign accent.”
For those looking to get ahead, the implications are clear: A foreign accent can be a show-stopper if the speaker is indeed difficult to understand, at which point language lessons and dedicated practice can yield better outcomes. But if clear communication is not an issue, turn it into a positive by pointing out the diverse perspectives (most companies these days acknowledge the value of diversity) you bring to the table and assure that your cultural background will be an asset.
Are you invisible? Leadership positions often call for individuals who are visible in the organization and publicly take a stand for issues they believe in. For introverts, these behaviors are neither natural nor easy to exhibit. As a result, those with quiet personalities and shy demeanor are often seen as lacking drive and ambition by their superiors, as a recent Wall Street Journal article reports. Many experience being passed over for promotions to upper management due to what is perceived as an inability to influence and project executive presence.
For those who feel out of place among extraverts, realize that you don’t have to change your personality. Instead, take small steps in changing your behavior by speaking up more often, participating in meetings and taking opportunities resulting in increased visibility. It may not be comfortable, but it will become easier with repeated effort and should soon show results.
Careless social media activity. Hiring managers and corporate decision-makers are all digitally tuned in these days and actively seek intel about candidates that would inform their recruiting decisions.
Inflammatory tweets and risqué Facebook postings pose obvious challenges, though absence of any information online about accomplishments can also cast doubt on your judgment and potential value to an organization. At minimum, a profile on LinkedIn is expected to show you’ve not missed the technology train entirely.
A LinkedIn profile, however, isn’t going to do you any favors unless it is well organized, updated to current status and optimized to make clear what you bring to the table.
Mind your photo too. A recent study by TheLadders.com, a New York City-based employment website, shows that recruiters spend about 19 percent of their time on a profile analyzing the picture. In a minute of profile scanning, that’s a long 12 seconds (try it yourself) of judging a book by its cover.
So exchange that profile picture that looks like a back-to-the-walls hostage photo to an approachable smile in a professional headshot.
For those who are in a hiring or other decision-making function, it helps to realize that we’re probably not aware of our biases. Therefore, we ought to get feedback from others and check our assumptions rather than give in to snap judgments. Remember, we’re all human.
Harrison Monarth is an executive coach, leadership consultant and the New York Times bestselling author of The Confident Speaker, and the business bestseller Executive Presence. Harrison coaches entrepreneurs and corporate executives from the Fortune 500 on positive behavior change, authentic leadership and effective communication, including making pitches that win multi-million dollar contracts. His latest book is Breakthrough Communication. You can find him at gurumaker.com.