Whether people realize it or not, everyone makes judgments about others based on stereotypes. While people’s actions based on such unconscious biases aren’t typically malicious, they can negatively impact a business on many levels, chief among them its ability to hire diverse talent.
“Anywhere that you have stereotypes, you have potential for bias in those areas,” said Jan Johnson, senior director of product management and talent acquisition solutions at ADP LLC, a human resources consulting firm based in Roseland, New Jersey.
Companies that aim to reduce unconscious bias use a variety of methods, one of which is removing names and photos from job applications, also know as blind hiring. FCB, an advertising agency based in Chicago, Illinois, uses a blind hiring program that it says yields 60 percent more women and people of color getting through to the interview round of the firm’s hiring process. Another is putting employees through formal unconscious bias training. Training on unconscious bias takes FCB most of a business day and typically yields 35 percent of attendees making behavioral changes, such as changing how they do team meetings or job interviews, according to Glenda Felden, vice president of communications at Grovo. The learning-platform company based in New York City partnered with FCB for a micro learning program on the topic of unconscious bias.
Outside of hiring, unconscious bias can be prevalent in other talent management matters. Johnson said she has dealt with unconscious bias at a previous employer when she examined the firm’s performance management results. She discovered that 80 percent of top performers were director-level and above, even in an underperforming business unit. The assumption was that if one is at a director level, they must be good at their job. After further conversation, however, the firm found that performance management processes sometimes were used as a motivational tool, rather than measuring performance, as it was with lower-level workers.
This sparked change in how the company looked at ratings by becoming more conscious of the system and unconscious biases built into it. “You can never really address bias until it becomes a topic of conversation,” Johnson said.
Chubb, an insurance company based in Whitehouse Station, New Jersey, uses a leadership development seminar as a time to discuss unconscious bias and how it influences leadership effectiveness. Other bias training for managers ties in how to objectively link performance with business goals and managing difficulties around unconscious bias, too, according to “Proven Strategies for Addressing Unconscious Bias in the Workplace,” a paper from Cook Ross Inc. and Chubb. The training around the combination of performance management and bias awareness saw more success than other bias training, according to the paper.
“Part of what organizations are learning today, those that really go the extra mile to understand the impact of unconscious bias in the workforce is that they realize that it’s in all of our human capital systems,” said Horace McCormick, Jr., program director of executive development at University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.
Because it’s people who set up the systems, biases are written into organizational processes, such as performance management. Thus, unconscious biases become embedded in teams, organizations and company cultures. McCormick said that organizations won’t see their biases until they go looking for it.
“For those who begin to look for these blind spots or these unconscious biases, they will generally find it,” he said.
Changing the Effects of Unconscious Bias
Leaders aiming to track progress of effects bias on the organization should start with measurement before any training or organizational changes ever take place. McCormick said leaders should look at what they already measure, such as retention, quality of succession plans, numbers of hires made or retention rates of women. Then, decide which ones leaders want to see move as a result of traveling down the path of reducing the effects of bias.
Leaders then must understand unconscious bias, which starts with training. McCormick said effective training requires someone who is trained and can facilitate conversations about unconscious bias. For skeptics, McCormick has found that hesitation often comes from people simply not understanding the science of it and why it exists.
“What diffuses most of us is simply the acknowledgement that everyone has unconscious bias, and none of us are immune from this,” McCormick said. “It’s just a part of the human condition.”
Then, it’s important for leaders to create structures that make organizational processes more transparent, McCormick said. For example, if workers understand the framework around succession planning, then they can see the process and better understand the decisions of leadership.
After revamping structures and reducing their embedded biases, firms can continue to improve. Rather than this being a one-time initiative, uncovering unconscious biases must be a continual part of relationships and conversations between leaders and workers, McCormick said.
Johnson cited one of her previous managers who led bias conversations in meetings. At the end of each meeting, he would ask if the group showed bias, and they discussed. The next meeting would then begin with a reminder to focus on bias and call it out. These discussions aren’t easy, so it’s important to take careful steps to make them effective.
Johnson listed three tips for leaders to do this:
- The leader has to be really objective in the sessions, continually asking questions. Ask the question, then let the team talk at length. If one calls out another, facilitate the discussion, but allow it to happen without being personal.
- It has to be consistent. If you’re going to talk about bias, you have to do it on every project, not just the easy ones, Johnson said.
- Hold the leaders accountable for being aware and acting appropriately. “The business results are absolutely important and imperative, but it can’t be at the sake of other things,” Johnson said. It’s not about quotas, but making sure everyone has an equal chance, is paid equally for contribution and value.
Lauren Dixon is an associate editor at Talent Economy.
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