Day 312: Institutional Biases and Skype

The other day, I had someone ask for advice about Skype interviews.  I consider myself a sort of de facto expert on the Skype interview, as I’ve done several. I personally don’t like them. I think it’s a trigger for people to let their biases and their inability to read things correctly influence how they feel about someone.

Many people– particularly in English departments– swear by Skype as THE way to handle interviews. These are people who stare at the person who is interviewing on the screen, scrutinizing their appearance, their attire, their body language, sometimes to the point of not listening to the person speak. That’s NOT the point of that stage in the interview process. It’s not a fashion show moment, not a chance for people who aren’t trained in reading body language to form opinions about how a person sits at a desk in front of a camera. It’s not a moment where you’re meant to impress with how you look. It’s a moment where you could, due to bandwidth, make a bad impression because your network lags. It’s also uncomfortable on the other end for many people. No one really wants a camera trained on them while they’re trying to think and respond (if you’ve never stood by a mirror to think about something, try it– your face is going to do stuff you don’t realize it’s doing and you will look strange). That’s not what a phone interview ever was previous to the invention of video casting like Skype.

I think we need to consider that carefully. It’s easy to become enamored with video casting. I teach a class on streaming video. I get that it’s cool. But maybe now is the time to realize that we didn’t remove the value of voice communication when video bandwidth became widely available. There’s a strong benefit to not focusing on looking at a person when communicating.

That we consider moving phone interviews to Skype interviews a wise thing is a form of the institution reinforcing racism, ageism, and size-ism. I think people who consider their appearance normal (in the literal sense– conforming to the norms of the academy) don’t think about why being able to see a person introduces a chance for bias, and why if you make a short interaction– most Skype interviews are 10-2o minutes max– about seeing someone on video chat you’re roughly treating a hiring practice the way the person– usually male–on a dating site demands a picture and then communicates or disappears upon seeing it. It makes you a bad person, trusting your first impression of someone’s appearance in that particular scenario. That should happen only if/when you are considering someone in the final round of hiring and you see them during a campus visit with enough exposure and contact time that your first impression isn’t your last. If you haven’t had long enough to determine what you think is a person’s personality from a potential hiccup, you’re not in any position to make a judgment.

Two quick personal anecdotes:

  1. I once, as a Skype call was loading, heard a member of a hiring committee say “hey, is this the fat one?” That shouldn’t have been part of that moment in the process. My weight has nothing to do with my teaching ability. Other than perhaps making me a better teacher because I understand how people scrutinize my body, something most male scholars don’t ever consider but which is a key factor for females in the academy.
  2. I went through a season– four or five–  of Skype interviews with a severely injured hip. If you’ve ever had bursitis so bad that it was hard to move (really bad slide on some black ice), you know what putting pressure on it does– it freaking hurts. Like “oh shit, man” bad. And it’s hard to sit in a chair in front of a camera and not put pressure on your hip, since that’s how chairs work. So in those interviews, my body language was totally off because I was in extreme pain, had to keep shifting in my seat, couldn’t keep my forehead from wrinkling a little in reaction to pain. A normal person would probably understand that, but academics– no offense to my colleagues– sometimes think they’re smarter than they are. If you ever want to see someone read too deep into something, put five academics in a room together and show them… anything.  Many of them think they’re like a champion Poker player who can see tells. They think they can read everyone’s body language. And sure, sometimes they can (sometimes *I* can, too), but people who didn’t know all the facts interpreted me, during that period of time, to be angry or frustrated.I was. With my hip. It had nothing to do with the interview.

We have to work to avoid these sorts of biases. This is a true enemy of diversity. And I don’t just mean racial or gender diversity; assumptions of norms are a problem for all sorts of diversity. I’ve had people– more than once–crack on how I dress. I’m 6’2, over 350 lbs. It’s not easy to find business-casual clothes that fit, and I’m sure as hell not going to sit at my desk in a shirt and tie, sweating up a storm, chafing myself– to talk to someone on Skype. What idiot would do such a thing? I’m a scholar, not a model. I understand how Skype is supposed to function. Why would I let someone colonize and co-opt it?

And you know what? I can teach in a polo shirt, or a hoodie, just as well as any sharp-dressed person. I will be ranked lower in a candidate pool where someone put on a suit and sat up straight and didn’t shift on his chair in an interview because some people are shallow and over-rank stuff like that. Some people will disapprove of me wearing a gamer headset, but that’s what gamers do when they’re on Skype. I won’t look as “professional” to some people as the guy who won’t mess up his hair with such things. I can’t imagine how some potential employers would have reacted if they’d seen the Bernie Sanders print that is in my current office, a gift from my lovely wife that is more about being an Infinity Gauntlet joke than a political statement, though Sanders is who I voted for.

No joke, btw: I was pulled aside by a full professor in my old department– not in my discipline, but in my department– who told me no one took me seriously because I wore sneakers to a faculty meeting and was a disrespectful punk. This person knew I was coming from physical therapy for a tendon issue related to the hip issue mentioned earlier in this post. If you’re wondering, yes, that is mobbing. I didn’t make a big deal of it, but I wish I had in retrospect. I tend to be polite to my elders. It’s  Cherokee thing.

But back to my point: I just might be better as a teacher, as a scholar, and as a colleague than a sharp dressed man. He might interview and be considered “incapable” of the job when he gets to the campus visit since his style will wear off long before his substance does. That might have been an interview I would have aced since I was doing the same job in a different place already, almost to-the-letter.

A sharp dressed man got the interview because he looked better than me on Skype. And I was all but told that.

Of course, he wouldn’t have looked better than me on the phone.

If that sounds bitter, it really shouldn’t. I know there’s a way to read it where it does. As Andre 3000 once said, I’m just being honest, and sometimes the brutality of brutal honesty reads as anger. I ended up getting an amazing job which I love with a group of colleagues that literally couldn’t be any better. I didn’t miss out on anything. But I don’t consider my succeeding because I’m capable to mean that I have to pretend I wasn’t also subject to some hot, spicy BS along the way.

And that same scenario shouldn’t happen to anyone. Ever. We shouldn’t be looking for ways to have additional biases as we interview. We all know that some things cannot be controlled, even if we try hard to be aware that we’re biased. So we should avoid the opportunity for those things to influence us. Even if it’s as slight as being able to see a hand with a wedding ring over a video feed. There’s no reason to have that piece of information. In fact, it’s something academic interviewers cannot ask, and the reason for that is that we KNOW it biases people.

So if you ask me for advice on your Skype interview, I can coach you on how to create the facade that they want (unless you’re fat, like me, then you’re just screwed in about 90% of situations and need to fight an uphill battle and learn to smile through people trying to comment on it nicely, because it will be a rare committee where someone won’t find a way to comment on it, even thought it’s illegal for them to do so), but my top piece of advice would be to request a phone call instead of Skype, or to “accidentally” not be able to activate your camera.

There’s no reason to give people more information than they need about you. It can only hurt you in the job market. Seriously, I know that sounds awful, but it’s true. Less is more. Make sure you do all you can to control what information they get. They should be judging you on what matters, not on what matters in their subconscious mind.


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