Tackling Our Unconscious Bias

There is an oft quoted, popular lateral thinking puzzle I’ve always liked. It goes: There is a terrible accident in which a boy and his father are injured. They are both taken to the hospital and the boy is rushed to surgery. The surgeon enters the room and, looking at the boy, exclaims “I can’t operate on him, he is my son!”.

It may take you a few seconds before you realise that the surgeon is in fact the boy’s mother. Now most of us are likely to picture the surgeon as a man in this scenario, giving us a near perfect example of unconscious gender stereotyping. This does not, however, mean we’re all secretly terrible misogynists.

Our unconscious bias isn’t always from a place of negative intent. Even the most well intentioned, thoughtful people have their own biases. It is a result of years of social, familial, societal influences, what we’ve seen growing up, images and the media we’re surrounded by. All of this has an impact on how we react to certain groups or the behaviours of certain people. It is this bias that poses one of the biggest challenges to an inclusive and diverse culture because it isn’t obvious and often goes against the grain of what we have come to define as “normal”.

Perhaps then the question we should be asking ourselves isn’t “Am I biased?” but “How am I unconsciously biased?” We’re all drawn to certain characteristics or traits in people, a common ground that we share with them that sparks an instant bond, a liking that leads us to make certain judgements about people and then look for evidence, true or not, which further confirms it. Sometimes it’s the sports we play, our hometowns, native language, or the high school we went to. Perhaps for some it’s a personality trait they’ve come to associate with success, certain behaviours that remind them of someone else, or traits that they actually like or even admire in themselves. I, for example, often find myself rooting for strong, opinionated women; voracious readers; underdogs; agnostics and anyone with a French accent.

While we can’t change who we inherently are and can never truly eliminate our unconscious affinities, in an organizational context our biases, if left unchecked, can prove to be detrimental to our hiring practices and our ability to effectively lead, manage and develop our teams.

There are of course a few instances where bringing together people who have something in common can prove to be beneficial in mentorship programs, for example. But even then, traditional mentoring programs are now focusing on a dual transfer of skills and knowledge, where the mentee must provide something to the mentor as well.

Extensive research has proven that a diverse group makes for an innovative workplace as it creates an environment where a wide spectrum of ideas can be shared. When in a diverse group, people are also open to share what they may feel are unpopular ideas, whereas when in a homogenous setting, the “norm” is unconsciously defined by those present.

Most companies aware of this are making major investments in diversity and inclusion programs; however, corporate guidelines aren’t useful if those implementing them are doing so from a place of unconscious bias–unaware of their own biases to how they perceive and define “normal”.

We’re in an era where an organization’s culture, its internal identity, has never had more focus. We have annual global rankings that grade organisations based on their corporate culture. Employees are asked to rate the company culture in engagement surveys, and in our hiring, we strive to assess every potential employee for a ‘strong culture fit’.

In acquiring our talent, how can we maintain that balance between hiring for a culture fit vs just hiring someone who looks/thinks/behaves like us.

Google reportedly committed to spending $150 million on diversity. (Click here.) While that is an impressive investment, most of us don’t have to go quite that far in how we address this. As any 12-step action plan will tell you, the first step is always admitting there is a problem.

Admitting we’re all unconsciously biased in our own ways and bringing the matter out in the open to discuss goes a long way in tackling it. Taking away the stigma for people from admitting that we all have these patterns. Creating a forum where people can speak up or point out any experiences, however minor they may have, and ensuring these conversations are also had with people in positions of hiring authority is a critical first step.

Leveraging technology to eliminate bias in hiring by using blind CVs and automated video interviews as a first step in the screening process. Stripping away information about gender, name, nationality, and race. Sometimes even a candidate’s education can be used unconsciously to favour one over the other. Using any of the above tools may point out some glaring habits of a hiring team and maybe worth conducting as an internal experiment to challenge people’s unconscious hiring patterns.

Killing the unstructured interview by properly preparing can go a long way in eliminating unconscious bias as well as conducting a fair and balanced interview. We’ve often read articles that say most interviewers make up their minds about whether to hire a candidate within the first minute of the interview and spend the rest of the meeting reaffirming their initial impressions. Creating a list of competency based questions based on the job requirements and asking them to all candidates, training the hiring managers and talent acquisition teams in more effective interviewing methods can help to develop a level playing field where the best candidate can rise to the top.

Involve different people in the hiring process to help interview for different skillsets as well as mitigate a single interviewer’s unconscious bias.

We all have biases, but how we go about acknowledging them and attempting to “see past” them says a lot about who we are. The same is true for an organisation. Examine your company culture and the make-up of your workforce. Partner with business leaders to define hiring goals that are aligned with your diversity and inclusion programs.


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