Beware Your Unconscious Bias

Unconscious Bias Photos by Getty Images By: Kristin Clarke, CAE

Despite our best intentions, unconscious bias—our deeply buried prejudices about people different from ourselves—continues to shape hiring decisions and frustrate diversity and inclusion efforts. How to counter that tendency? Here are good first steps.

Even the federal government is talking openly about a problem whose sensitivity traditionally has pushed it behind closed doors: the undeniable influence of “unconscious bias” in hiring.

Unconscious or “implicit” bias has existed as long as humankind, embedded in our brains’ neurological core to send strong protective alerts— “gut feelings” or “nudges”—about perceived threats or suspicions. While such bias helps us sort and evaluate millions of data bits each day, it works in part by drawing on our past experiences and current understanding to reach split-second judgments about strangers.  

This can be problematic for hiring managers asking, “Am I comfortable with this job candidate? No? Next!”

Calling it “one of the most challenging barriers to diversity and inclusion,” Office of Personnel Management Director Beth Cobert stated at an April 2016 OPM summit that unconscious bias is “difficult to grapple with because it is … not as obvious as calling out someone for using improper language or overtly passing someone over for a promotion.” 

Part of what we’re up against is this myth of meritocracy, this notion that we only hire the best people. If you believe that, you’re fooling yourself Sherry Marts

Other employers, including associations, share Cobert’s frustration. Despite strong commitments to D+I, organizations representing such wide-ranging sectors as technology, academia, health care, and engineering have been publicly criticized for negative effects of unconscious bias on their workforce demographics.

The problem is that few people believe themselves to be biased against job candidates who are different from themselves. “Once our mind has made itself up, we get into confirmation bias—looking for evidence that our judgments are true,” says Sherry Marts, CEO of S.Marts Consulting, LLC.

For hiring managers, the first step is to “recognize that you are taking in and basing your decision on a lot more than what you know in your rational, conscious awareness,” says Marts. “Part of what we’re up against is this myth of meritocracy, this notion that we only hire the best people. If you believe that, you’re fooling yourself. You’re basing your decisions on your past experiences and [exposures], and only partly on [the candidate’s] qualifications.”

She cites as a red flag the typical post-interview debate about whether a candidate is a “good fit.”

“Often, the question really is, ‘Is this person willing to pretend they are like me, so I can be comfortable around them?’” Marts says.

How can you counter your own unconscious bias when recruiting? Marts offers a few tips:

Be honest, not defensive. Acknowledge that “you can’t always trust what your mind is telling you,” so “refocus on what a candidate is actually saying and doing.”

Ask everyone the same interview questions. “In hiring, going with your gut during an interview is not best [practice].”

Establish consensus among managers ahead of time regarding the critical criteria for evaluating candidates.

Go with a group. In a past position, when Marts stepped back and thought about her own unconscious bias toward job candidates, she realized she kept “interviewing myself,” women with similar backgrounds who wanted careers headed in the same direction as hers.

To counter that tendency, she asked others to interview her candidates, too. “I wanted to ensure I wasn’t just aiming for comfort,” Marts says. “I added the external check because I thought it was necessary to be truly fair to all candidates.”

She also diversified that group, noting, “I didn’t want all 60-year-olds interviewing a 25-year-old.”

Change your process. Organizations are beginning to use new tactics to keep unconscious bias out of the recruiting process. For example, blind interviews involve stripping resumes of identifying information such as name, gender, age, and even schools in favor of focusing on skills and experience alone.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, for instance, grew the percentage of women in its Senior Executive Service by 41 percent since adopting blind interviews in 2009. Similar upswings are reported for other professions, including symphony musicians and law enforcement officers.

The encouraging news is that the more diverse workplaces become, the easier it is to counterbalance unconscious bias.

“Once you’ve worked closely with people very different from you, your comfort zone expands, and you start to look past any [initial reactions],” Marts says. “You can do that consciously by acknowledging mentally that your first judgment may not be accurate.”

Kristin Clarke, CAE

Kristin Clarke, CAE, is president of Clarke Association Content and is the books columnist for Associations Now.