New with remote working – “background bias”

by Feb 16, 2021

Have you suffered background bias?

Not everyone has a dedicated space to set the scene for professional meetings which seem to be causing background bias issues for remote workers.


I am labelling a bias that seems to have emerged with remote working. I’m calling it “background bias.”

I am hearing from clients and contacts that they are being called out because of the backgrounds visible in their remote working space when they are on online calls. These can be beds (made), kids, kitchens, pets, food, and anything else.

background bias

I called on managers, recruiters, and career coaches how they would recommend dealing with this. There was a range of responses.

Be real

Not everyone can have dedicated space with full leather-bound bookshelves, especially when combining this with home-schooling kids or co-working with a partner. Ed Han, Talent Acquisition Geek commented “My own home is in a state of disrepair so I use a screen during video calls. In fact, I’ll be doing it later this morning. Although I personally haven’t witnessed this happen, I have no doubt that it does. And I agree that it’s a problem. It’s pretty insensitive.”

Nor do they have the possibility to have a virtual background. And when someone is struggling if they are unemployed or even report to you, those comments only add to their stress.  If they are rejected by a recruiter or hiring manager, this makes it even worse. Some people have even told me they have even rented hotel rooms to ensure they have the most professional-looking background. This is a significant outlay in the middle of a global recession when some hiring processes might involve more than four interviews. Seriously, don’t people have enough to contend with?

Some find virtual backgrounds distracting.

Build Workarounds

Some LinkedIn contacts and recruitment experts came out in favour of workarounds for background bias. Bernadette Pawlick, Executive Search Consultant proffered some sage advice: “There are aspects of our lives over which we now have limited control, but that doesn’t mean we have no control.”

Wayne Yoshida, Principal Writer and LinkedIn Optimizer. “Here’s something to consider: Most video conference platforms allow background images. Pick one. Just to be safe, find non-copyright images. I have several, some made by me and some public domain, royalty-free images. Green screen may also help. One thing to avoid: background video. It can be distracting. Although there is someone out there who uses a really funny one: He accidently opens the door and pokes his head into his own meeting . . . .”  

Vanessa Flyn, CEO Bolt Talent Solutions “A blank wall and adequate lighting is all you need. Candidates need to take responsibility for preparing a professional impression if they really want the job. We always brief our candidates before their video interviews to ensure that hiring managers can tune in to their experience, skills and suitability for the role and not have distracting backgrounds and noise.

 “Creating a good impression is therefore very important and so is feeling good about yourself. In short, dress smartly, smile, give good eye contact with the camera and have good lighting and a neutral background. A plain wall background is ideal and most people can manage to arrange it. Interviewers will not be impressed by your underwear drying on a rack behind you.”  says Luxembourg based Career Coach , Keith Amoss.

That type of control isn’t always possible I was facilitating a global webinar with two toddlers banging on a locked door!  Steven Hayward, suggested that the approach might be harsh.  “The responses here make quite a lot of assumptions about how much control the person has of the background environment, particularly if it’s a shared environment, and especially if it’s a shared environment that in ordinary circumstances wouldn’t have all the occupants inside all day.”

Bias awareness

Tara Orchard Career Coach Canada recommended reading ‘Thinking Fast And Slow’ Daniel Khannamen did talk about how being aware of your potential biases can help counteract them to some extent. I recommend to clients to try and put their best foot forward with a nice background space but when they can’t to call it out. If they mention that their background is not optimal but working from home they have had to share their space or select a space where they can be private even if it is a closet that can disarm the other person and potentially take the background bias out of the equation.

 Kevin D. Turner LinkedIn Trainer “…. one of the best ways to defeat bias is to be aware of it in the first place. Many people may be subconsciously processing a less than office perfect setting into a negative “background bias” and without knowing it may be diminishing the interaction.”

But even if we haven’t done that inner work it can also be about common sense “Listen for the message, not the mess”  says Loren Grieff 

background bias

Call out the bias

Some colleagues were firmly on the side of calling background bias out.

Shelley Piedmont, Career Coach said “I had a hiring manager that would not hire this very accomplished female because she had let her hair coloring go a bit too long, and you could see her roots. Yes, people are that petty. It is a lack of empathy for another person’s situation. If what you see is not job-related, it doesn’t matter. Period.”

“There will always be sad, pathetic, small-minded, angry, mean people who are so unhappy in their own miserable little lives that they need to lash out at others. I just ignore the comments which deprive them of the hate oxygen they so desperately desire. I was surprised how many of my colleagues proposed workarounds which only serve to enforce the bias.”  said Jack Kelly Founder of Wecruiter firmly. 

Olivia Verhulst, Consultant and Facilitator based in Spain says  “Thanks Dorothy Dalton for pointing out ANOTHER bias from recruiters… I’m amazed by the NON-answers, focusing on what candidates should do INSTEAD of what/ how recruiters should do … and only very few comments point awareness of this bias and taking feedback to improve/ self-develop… My 2 cents: just BE HUMAN … and if you forgot what this means, it’s time to change!” 

Nancy D. Solomon, CEO and Co-Founder at the Leadership Incubator, ” I find it curious that these folks have nothing more significant to focus on than the background of someone’s home. If they were listening to the person on the other side of the zoom, truly listening, we wouldn’t even be discussing this. Grow up!!!”

Sonal Bahl, ICF Certified Career Coach bemoans “oh, the judgment … will it never end? Apparently not. But would I judge someone because they have a messy background? “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” People need to reminded of their humanity, plain and simple.”

Who should change?

The stand-out concern to me is that we are still insisting that the person we are talking to whether interviewing or meeting must manage their environments, so we don’t have to manage our biases. In proposing workarounds are we not accepting and embedded these biases rather than dealing with them at source? This means of course making changes and no one likes change  – especially if that involves changing ourselves.

Scott Tewkesbury Senior Talent Advisor has the last word  “Just be kind to people. End of story.”

For the full discussion follow here which is still ongoing. Thanks to the many other contributors who shared their thoughts, too many to list here.

As a hiring manager or recruiter do you recognise your biases? Learn more with our Unconscious Bias Training Workshops.


Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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