An Expert on Hiring Bias Weighs In on the 'Jeopardy!' Mike Richards Controversy

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An Expert on Hiring Bias Weighs In on the 'Jeopardy!' Mike Richards Controversy
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When Jeopardy! announced in August that executive producer Mike Richards would take over as the show’s permanent host, many viewers shared the same reaction: “Typical.” Some felt that the anointment of a white man stemmed from Sony’s refusal to see women and people of color as real contenders, and accused Richards of “pulling a Dick Cheney”—meaning, leading a hiring committee through an arduous recruitment process only to hire himself. Others just felt tricked: what was the point of Jeopardy!'s exciting, highly public guest host carousel if the show was always going to hire an insider? When Richards was removed from the job following a damaging report about his history of using offensive and discriminatory language, it was a predictable outcome that seemed to confirm what so many viewers suspected. Another day, another problematic white man flaming out of his high-profile gig—case closed.

But for Dr. Corinne Low, an assistant professor of business economics and public policy at the Wharton School of Business, this was bigger than just a bruising episode for the beleaguered game show. For Low, Jeopardy!'s fiasco was also was a lesson in how unconscious bias shapes hiring practices—and not for the better. As Wharton defines it, unconscious bias is "what happens when recruiters and hiring managers, motivated by deeply embedded social stereotypes, pick job candidates who closely resemble themselves." Low, whose research focuses on how age and gender stratify the workplace, sees Richards' appointment as the outcome of a flawed process shaped by unconscious bias and conflicts of interest. Low spoke with Esquire to highlight where Jeopardy! went wrong, what she'd have done differently, and what every American worker can learn from Jeopardy!'s mistakes.

Esquire: At what point in the Jeopardy! fiasco did you first take notice of what was happening and think, “Something rotten is going on here”?

Corinne Low: It was before they even announced that Mike Richards would be the permanent host. Often companies will float something to see what the reaction is and get some of the feelings out of the way. In the media, it was said that Richards was considered to be a frontrunner for the job. I thought that was funny, because isn’t he the executive producer—the one who’s in charge of the search? It was like the chair of the search committee nominating himself. I thought, "It's not like fans have any attachment to this person. He has no strong connection to the series. It’s so disappointing that they’re just going for a white man again."

That was the first time I took note of it. It was all just so typical. After Richards was officially announced as the host, there were some exposés describing what the process was like, saying that he was the person who chose which episodes were screened to the test audiences. LeVar Burton went in as a fan favorite, and I don't know if he was the best host, but you obviously want things to look equal on paper. He was only given one week as a guest host, whereas many others were given two weeks. Because of the way the show is taped, one week of episodes is actually just a single day of taping, so there's no chance to improve and learn as you go along.

ESQ: In what ways was it problematic that Richards was both an executive producer and a candidate? How does that shadow power shape a hiring process?

CL: There’s no way you can be objective, or that the process can be objective, when you have an inside candidate who is so involved in the process. The instant there was any idea that Richards was being considered, the fair thing would have been to immediately recuse him from the hiring process. This case is obvious and blatant, but even if it's not that obvious and blatant, we can think of these allegiances as being about groups and people who are similar to you. This happens all the time, to be clear. It's a predominantly white male upper-class power structure that selects the next generation of leaders. They're naturally going to have that homophily—that preference for things that are alike—and be drawn to white male candidates who seem like them. Paul Graham said, "I can see who the next startup leader is going to be. They have a look about them. It's young man wearing a hoodie and jeans who has coded in his basement since he was fourteen years old." No, that's not what the next startup leader is going to look like. That's what previous startup leaders have looked like.

It's understandable, because this is all the data our brains have to make decisions. We criticize a lot of algorithm-driven hiring, because we know that those computer algorithms are trained on historical data. They’re going to build in the preferences, the biases, and the exclusions that have been there historically. We know that some groups have been historically excluded and underrepresented. When we talk about algorithm-driven hiring, we neglect the fact that human beings make decisions the same way. Our brains are trained on historical data for us to make decisions. We're not always aware of how we make decisions. A lot of how we make decisions about who looks like a game show host is based on historical data. Every time we don't consciously try to remove dependence from the hiring process, we project those inequities forward.

ESQ: When you looked at the line-up of guest hosts, what did its composition tell you about how the hiring process went at Jeopardy!?

CL: It told me, first of all, that they were going to prioritize people who had a lot of previous on-screen experience or who were superstars. If you're looking for people who have hosted game shows, or sports shows, or been announcers before, you're going to be looking at a lot of white men, because that's who has dominated that field. You should never have a hiring process that’s more than 50% white men, but this was 9 white men out of 16 people. Between women, people of color, and the intersection of the two, that should be 50% of your candidates, at least. Otherwise, you're not even giving yourself the opportunity to work past baked-in historical inequities. That right there, from the very beginning, told me that Jeopardy! wasn’t taking inclusion seriously. One out of every two candidates should not be a white man. When I don't see that, I know you did not take inclusion and diversity seriously as metrics to be elevated alongside other hiring metrics.

Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

The other thing that bothered me when I looked at the lineup was what I call window dressing. You want it to look like you have a balanced lineup, but it might not really be balanced. Some of the candidates were real candidates: experienced people with a real shot at the job, by and large white men. But when you look at the women, it was Robin Roberts and Katie Couric. Do they even want to host Jeopardy!? They had splashy women doing guest hosting stints, but they not have actually been in the running for the hosting job. Then your real candidates might be even more skewed than your surface list is.

ESQ: If you had been in charge of the Jeopardy! hiring process, what would you have done differently?

CL: If I really took diversity and inclusion seriously, I would have tried not to select a host, but build a host. I would have said, "I know that there are historical inequities. I know that who’s occupying these jobs today is shaped by historical exclusion." The best person for this job might not have gotten the opportunity that would surface them on my short list. I'm going to go deeper in terms of surfacing candidates who are promising. Maybe they could do this if they had the opportunity to learn and to grow.

I would have done a deep dive in building my short list. Start with maybe 30 candidates, with diversity and inclusion as an important factor elevated alongside other factors, like past hosting experience. Then I would do an initial screen with a group of people I trusted not to say, "This person looks like host material." I’d be looking for something more than on-screen potential. They have an interest in Jeopardy!. They actually want the job. They know how the dynamic works. Then I would send them to hosting bootcamp. I would not put them on TV right away as guest hosts and then say, "Test audiences didn't like you." They didn't necessarily have the same opportunities to learn what the test audiences did and did not like.

Mike Richards had an inside track to know how audiences responded to Jeopardy!, and what factors made someone a good host. Somebody who hasn't had that opportunity to be an executive producer at Jeopardy! doesn't have the same background or the same ability to bring that to their hosting. I would send them to bootcamp to get feedback from executive producers, then I would have them do a day of taping, screen that for test audiences, give them the feedback from test audiences, and have them come back to do a second day of taping. From there, I’d have a very transparent process where you knew who’s on the selection panel and how they’re making their decisions. I would have them objectively evaluate a lot of different criteria to make that final decision. There's this myth that we can't do anything about the preparation the candidates come in with. Companies say all the time: “We want to fix it, but there's a pipeline problem.” But actually, you can fix it. You can invest in the pipeline. A lot of companies are getting wise to that by investing in diversity and inclusion in their internship programs, so then when it comes time to hire for full-time, you've invested in giving candidates the experience that makes them eligible. You can do something about the pipeline. In fact, it's your responsibility to do something about the pipeline.

Photo credit: Daytime Emmy Awards 2021 - Getty Images
Photo credit: Daytime Emmy Awards 2021 - Getty Images

ESQ: You're reminding me of the complaints about how the process went down with LeVar Burton. Some people thought his performance wasn’t up to snuff, but he had just one day to tape, and his episodes aired during the Olympics. Of course the ratings tanked.

CL: I have no idea if LeVar Burton would have emerged as the best choice at the end of a fair process, but you don't want your process to look unfair. You don't want to set up a process where this person couldn’t be successful, even if they were the best host in the world. If test audiences don't respond well to his episodes, they should tell him what they didn’t respond well to, and see if he can adjust to that feedback. That would be giving somebody a fair shake.

But saying, "The ratings next to the Olympics weren't as high”—that’s not an objective metric. When we pretend there are objective metrics, but we're really just going with the inside candidate or what's always worked before, companies are actually engaged in affirmative action for white men. That’s an illusion of meritocracy. I want companies to stop saying, "If there are no women or people of color in this job, it's because somehow they just didn't make the cut." We are so far from a meritocracy, when you look at all the little ways that you're not actually objectively evaluating candidates.

ESQ: When Jeopardy! writes off a candidate because their episodes didn’t test well, it feels as if producers are simply looking for excuses to do what they perhaps always intended to do: hire Mike Richards.

CL: Right. That's certainly how this felt. We don't know what happened inside, but certainly from the outside, this felt like a sham. They had decided who their candidate was, and they wanted to make a show of going through some kind of process so that people would accept this outcome.

ESQ: The Jeopardy! fiasco has illuminated a lot about hidden hiring biases. What can the average American worker or hiring manager take away from this?

CL: You have an opportunity to do better. The decision-makers here would have called this a meritocratic decision. I want us to see how short it fell from actually being that, and then reflect in our own organizations. We say, "It is what it is. This was the best candidate for the job, and it again happened to be a white man." We have to reflect on the ways that what we see as meritocracy may actually be giving a leg up to the historically included group, then find a way to poke the assumptions leading to those same outcomes over and over. If we don't change our processes, if we don't change our assumptions, we won't change the outcome. We can't just keep doing things the same way and then say, "Yet again, we weren't able to hire diverse candidates. What a shame."

We have to change the way we do things. We have to elevate diversity and inclusion alongside other values when we're doing a search, and make sure that we’re actually providing an opportunity for candidates to be on a level playing field, taking into account that the process bringing us here was not equal.

ESQ: You’re talking about change on an organizational level, but what does change look like on an individual level? How can we rigorously check our biases as we make these decisions?

CL: The big takeaway from some of the research I've done on bias in hiring is that managers don’t know they’re biased. I did a study where we looked at how firms evaluated resumes. Everything was randomized, including the demographic information. We found that firms were biased towards women and minorities, even though they actually thought they had a preference for women and minorities. We have to stop the blame game, or this idea that you're a bad person if you have biases. It's like when somebody throws something to you and you react on the spot—you either move out of the way or put up your hand to catch it. You’re not making a conscious decision to do that. Our brains are like super computers processing past information to make that split-second subconscious decision of what to do. That's the same way we make decisions about whether we like a candidate, or whether something feels right, or whether somebody looks like a game show host to us.

We have to acknowledge that we all live in the same society with the same historical biases and exclusions. We’ve all taken in that same biased data. We've trained our brains on biased data. We have to actively work to correct our processes by building in objective evaluation criteria rather than going on gut feeling. In doing that, we can set our flawed brains up to be more successful in making fair and unbiased evaluations. The first step is admitting we have a problem. It doesn't mean that everyone has to say, "I’m bad! I'm a sexist and a racist." We just have to admit it's there. The process as it exists is not fair. It's not a meritocracy. Once we admit it, we can start building something better.

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