Eliminating Unconscious Bias in Hiring

Unconscious bias is a scary reality that plagues many organizations and means that the best people aren’t getting the right jobs and promotions.  We spoke with Sangita Katsuri of Action Inclusion about how companies can work to eliminate unconscious bias in their hiring process.

  1. What is your definition of unconscious bias, and how does it play out in the hiring process?

If we are honest, we can admit that we have some very conscious biases and preferences for certain kinds of people, characteristics, appearances, behaviors and even nuances of speech. Unconscious bias, however, refers to biases that we aren’t even aware of, but still impact the way we make decisions, who we trust, who we hire, fire or promote in our companies. In an organization, the impact of unconscious bias is felt in many areas including recruiting, retention, advancement, performance, employee engagement and organizational culture.

For example, Stanford ran an experiment to hire for the position of a lab manager. Two resumes for the position were circulated – one belonged to Jennifer, the other to John. Reviewers overwhelmingly chose John citing his qualifications and fit for the job. They thought Jennifer was less qualified. Remember, both resumes were identical. But our mental models associate men, rather than women, more closely with leadership and this bias is correlated with the lack of women in higher level leadership roles, or board director roles in most companies. While this case illustrates gender bias, other research demonstrates that resume’s with African-American or foreign sounding names get fewer call backs than resumes with typically “white” sounding names, regardless of qualifications.

Obviously, biases like these have a direct impact on the hiring process. Blinding incoming resumes can stem the bias, up to a point. That is something that companies can consider, along with raising awareness of unconscious bias for recruiters and hiring managers.

  1. This is something most people would say is a problem, but why do you think it’s necessary for companies to eliminate unconscious bias?

It’s really a question of talent management. Unconscious bias can keep good talent out of companies or from advancing within companies. So initiatives designed around inclusion and diversity are really talent management imperatives.

We’ve talked about how this impacts hiring, but it also impacts retention and advancement. Some may argue that as a woman or minority you can stand out in an organization. That can be true in some cases. However women and minorities are sometimes held to different standards. For example, it has been shown that men are evaluated on results and women are evaluated on behavior. In performance evaluations, high achieving women in particular are told that they are “bossy, abrasive strident or aggressive” about 30% more of the time than men. The word “bossy” is not used with men. When men are told they are aggressive, it is usually complimentary.

Over the years, in my interactions with clients and students in my MBA program, many women have corroborated these studies telling me first hand that they have been asked to tone it down or be less direct. Some have even received coaching on how to write their emails so that they sound softer. Men don’t get this kind of behavioral coaching as much, particularly to soften. Uniformly, these women agree that the energy it takes to soften, back down and take on a different tone detracts from the energy they could be spending on solving problems and advancing company goals.

  1. Were you surprised to find that you also have implicit biases that guide your thinking?

In my training sessions, I often recommend that people take an online test to uncover their unconscious biases. These tests are part of Harvard’s Project Implicit and are called Implicit Association Tests. I have taken several of these tests myself and have been surprised. For example, I always thought I believed that women and men are equally qualified for work outside the home. What I found is that I have a reverse bias – I associate women with career and men with the home. This is likely due to my unique set of circumstances, the way I grew up, etc.

When attendees in my workshops take the test, they are often surprised at what they learn and it takes some time to reconcile the difference between what we think we believe and what we actually believe. Being biased is a human condition. Being courageous is also a human condition. And it takes great courage, honestly and leadership to examine and admit to your own biases, and then to mitigate them through conscious action.

  1. What pitfalls do companies fall into when trying to eliminate this bias?

One of the biggest mistakes companies make is to treat bias as an issue of diversity and inclusion. It is really an issue of talent management. Bias prevents companies from leveraging all available talent to its fullest capability. This is a missed opportunity in terms of maximizing talent potential.

Another mistake companies make is to focus on recruiting alone. This usually surfaces through questions like How can I attract more [women, minorities]? On the flip side, if a company is successful in attracting female and minority talent, it may feel satisfied and assume that all is well. However, it is important to remember issues of talent, diversity and inclusion span three areas – recruiting, retention and promotion. Some companies are able to attract diverse talent, but fail to retain it. Others do just fine in recruiting (50-50 male-female at entry level, for example) but fail to promote, which can lead to issues of retention as well. It is important to identify the talent cliff, which is the job level at which women and minorities begin to drop off, then ask probing questions and take courageous action to mitigate the cliff. An inclusion roadmap that spans 1-3 years can be a first step in articulating specific inclusion objectives, behaviors and success factors that link up with an organization’s diversity and inclusion policy or statement, if there is one.

  1. How can a well-intentioned company move towards eliminating the bias that may impact their talent?

The first step in mitigating bias is to raise it from the unconscious to the conscious where action is possible. This can happen through targeted training on unconscious bias. But it doesn’t end there. It is also important to identify where bias has its greatest impact in your organization – in hiring (can’t attract enough diverse talent), retention (can’t keep enough diverse talent), advancement (not promoting enough diverse talent or all three. Becoming conscious of how it impacts each of these areas, and employing strategies to target bias in each of these areas is a large, but very manageable undertaking.

Phil Strazzulla

Phil Strazzulla

Founder at NextWave Hire
Phil is a founder of NextWave Hire.Previously, he was a VC at Bessemer.Phil is a self taught programmer and business nerd who studied at NYU and Harvard Business School.
Phil Strazzulla