What ‘Jeopardy!’ Revealed About Hidden Hiring Bias

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Wharton’s Corinne Low speaks with Wharton Business Daily on SiriusXM about hidden hiring bias and the game show Jeopardy!

If “Jeopardy!” were the answer to a question on its own iconic game show, it would fall under the category of “Bad Hiring Practices.”

Corinne Low, a Wharton professor of business economics and public policy, said the show’s dramatic turn at finding a host to replace the late Alex Trebek has all the hallmarks of unconscious bias. That’s what happens when recruiters and hiring managers, motivated by deeply embedded social stereotypes, pick job candidates who closely resemble themselves.

After Trebek’s death from pancreatic cancer in November, “Jeopardy!” offered a veritable parade of celebrity candidates, including actors LeVar Burton and Mayim Bialik, only to hire executive producer Mike Richards, a behind-the-scenes TV veteran who was unknown to viewers. But Richards was quickly removed after a report detailed offensive comments he made about women, Jewish people, and people with mental disabilities during an old podcast.

“When I looked at that process, it just stuck out to me as such a crystal clear example of the ways firms so often act like they really want to seek diversity when they’re hiring, but they shoot themselves in the foot before they even get out of the gate by using these practices that end up surfacing the same old candidates,” Low said during a segment with Wharton Business Daily on SiriusXM. (Listen to the podcast above.)

The hiring process felt like a sham because the man tasked with vetting the tryout hosts ultimately gave himself the job, with the backing of Sony Pictures Television. Richards was reportedly in charge of every aspect of the process, including choosing which shows were screened by test audiences for evaluation.

“We have to recognize the way the internal biases and processes we have in place do not create a meritocracy.” –Corinne Low

“Something that looks like an objective metric – how the test audience responds – isn’t that objective when you look at the shadow power that is going on behind the scenes in deciding how that metric gets produced,” said Low, whose research focus includes discriminatory hiring practices.

She also questioned the show’s sincerity in trying to find a female or minority host. Of the 16 guest hosts, nine were white men, three were men of color, and four were women, including broadcast journalists Katie Couric and Robin Roberts. Low wondered whether those two women, with their high-profile jobs in TV news, were real candidates or just window dressing.

“Are they actually looking to take the Jeopardy! hosting job or were they there to sprinkle some diversity in the guest hosting lineup and give the illusion that this was a meritocratic process?” she said.

‘In the Club’

The hiring debacle at Jeopardy! is a “particularly egregious example” of something that happens in companies all the time, Low said. Decision-makers are the very same people who have historically dominated the field and benefit from the privilege that comes with being in control. Ultimately, their hidden biases lead them to applicants they have a high degree of comfort with — applicants who look like them, come from similar educational and economic backgrounds, and who have the same professional and social networks. She cited jobs in science, engineering, technology, and math (STEM), a field that has long been dominated by white men, as an example.

“I think the subtle ways that who is already in the club shapes who then gets into the club is something that’s playing out in every company across America and something we need to address if we’re serious about diversity in hiring,” Low said. “We have to recognize the way the internal biases and processes we have in place do not create a meritocracy because they privilege the people who’ve already had access to the spaces we’re trying to hire new voices for.”

As Jeopardy! renews its search for a permanent host, the show would do well to make the process more transparent, Low said. And like other companies, it could help level the playing field for diversity candidates who have no on-air experience by offering some training, like a boot camp where they can receive honest feedback before appearing on television.

Low doesn’t buy the common recruiting excuse that the diversity pipeline is too narrow; she said companies need to invest in expanding the pipeline.

“People think, ‘Well, we can’t do anything about the pipeline, we can’t do anything about what the candidates come in with. We just have to take it as it is,’” she said. “You know what, you actually can. You can invest in the pipeline, and it’s not that costly.”

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