Skip to main content

Inclusive Employment Blog Series- Part Two: Unicorn Bias

Something that is often overlooked in the quest to find qualified candidates is the unconscious discrimination that can occur when unchecked. In this way, I propose that overly favoring experience when unnecessary could be viewed as a marker of discrimination. While there may be no legal repercussions for doing this, it is no less damaging to candidates, especially neurodiverse individuals. The reason is that it leads to exclusionary practices that favor the few but ignore the many.

To illustrate, I noticed that while discriminating based on a protected class, such as race or disability, is forbidden; there are other ways to accomplish the same “goal” while not being explicit. For example, a recruiter cannot deny a candidate because of skin color or disability but can reject a candidate who does not have “adequate” experience. This is why job analysis is critical when crafting a job ad because it can deter qualified candidates or eliminate them later in the process. It is important to note that the intention may be sincere, but the execution is the issue and what causes many candidates to be left out. Therefore, it is essential to ensure that experience is necessary for the position and not an afterthought or leftover from another job ad.

Next, I have spoken on some types of hiring bias that occurs in interviewing, but there is another that seems harmless but plays a big part in overlooking qualified candidates. That hiring bias is what I call the Unicorn bias and occurs when a candidate appears to be “perfect” and creates unrealistic expectations. To elaborate, I chose a unicorn because it is a mythical creature that does not exist, but the pursuit becomes the goal. In this way, the unicorn in this context symbolizes a candidate that nearly or very much checks every box that a recruiter is looking for. The issue arises when the pursuit becomes the goal and begins to cloud the recruiter’s judgment of reality at the expense of qualified candidates. No one is perfect, and the reality is that the vast majority of qualified candidates will not appear as unicorns and thus get overlooked.

I personally experienced this bias when I thought I had found a unicorn during an interview. This person matched almost all the boxes a recruiter could dream of and seemed easy to accept in the company. However, this person had lots of experience and should have been interviewing for higher-level positions, but they were under the impression they needed lots of experience to be considered. With this said, after seeing this “unicorn” with my own eyes, it was difficult to interview other candidates who were not as mythical as that. As discussed, it is important to reset after every interview and acknowledge challenges or issues with every candidate, no matter how extraordinary they appear. Another truth is that the likelihood of encountering another unicorn afterward is slim, and pursuing them will cause other candidates to be left out.

This unicorn bias is especially troubling for hiring neurodiverse individuals. After all, they will most likely not appear as unicorns because many of them need access to the kinds of experiences that are expected. Moreover, many neurodiverse individuals have unique needs and challenges that make it difficult for them throughout the recruiting process. However, the workplace comprises a vast and diverse group of people that are not unicorns but are still employed. Plenty of employees in workplaces today do not meet all or most of the checkboxes but are still employed, and some do better than they were at the time of the interview.

The key is to realize that “qualified” candidates cover multiple areas such as skillset, culture fit, previous jobs, volunteering, and attitude. Naturally, which is favored over others depends on the job and company culture. Also, notice that experience is only one facet to consider and that any other aspect will have pros and cons, depending on the job.

Brandon Orozco is the AFO Workforce Development Project Assistant and holds a BS degree in Psychology with a dual minor in Philosophy and Business Management. Brandon is currently pursuing an MS in Human Resource Management from Claremont Graduate University and was the founder and President of the Professionals in Human Resources Association (PIHRA) student chapter. Brandon is an Autistic self-advocate and has previous experience being a Talent Acquisition Team Lead for a rising tech startup and enjoys sharing his lived experiences and perspectives. 

Skip to content