Be Careful, Your Bias is Showing

By Brian Thomas and Whitney Glover

Imagine you’re a hiring manager.  Candidates Chris, Jordan, and Nykesha apply for a job as an executive vice-president with your company.  You learn from the resumes that one of the candidates is Harvard graduate with 18 year’s work experience. Another is a single parent who, despite a difficult background, holds a Master’s degree in Business Administration.  One of the candidates is a relatively recent college graduate with no relevant work experience, but with excellent grades.  You will eventually interview all three, but you call the Harvard grad into your office first.

Stop for a moment.  Who just walked into your office?

Was it Chris? Is Chris the Harvard grad? What does Chris look like? Did you picture a white man?  Is Chris a black man? Chris could be short for Christine.  Is Chris a woman? What about Jordan?  Is Jordan a man? A woman?  Is Jordan transgender or non-binary? Is Nykesha a black woman?   A white man? Did you think Nykesha was the single parent with the difficult background?

If you’re like most people, you made assumptions based solely on the candidates’ name and the job they’re seeking.  The assumptions aren’t grounded in fact.  They’re built on our implicit bias -which describes our unconscious attitudes or stereotypes that influence our understanding, actions, and decisions.  People often bristle when discussing implicit bias.  The stark reality is we all have them.  That doesn’t mean our involuntary reactions are necessarily bad or wrong.  It’s what you do with your biases that can affect the workplace.

Implicit bias isn’t new.  In the eighties, several well-regarded orchestras noticed that virtually all of their musicians were men.  The orchestras knew qualified, capable women were graduating from conservatories, but women simply weren’t advancing in the auditions.  The orchestras used open auditions at the time, where musicians performed in front of panel.  The panels believed they were making decisions based solely on the quality of the performers’ musicianship and that men were just better musicians.   But when the orchestras started using blind auditions (where the panel couldn’t see the performer during the audition), women started advancing and joining the orchestra. Turns out, the musicians making the hiring decisions implicitly believed that men were better musicians and that bias prevented them from evaluating the performers on the most important thing –their musicianship.

We can learn a larger lesson here.

Employers should understand that everyone has implicit biases and examine how these biases are revealed in the workplace. Smart companies identify biased systems within their organizations and find ways to correct them.  It can be an uncomfortable conversation.  But employers should get comfortable being uncomfortable. Corporate leaders should create and support purposeful strategies that address the dangers of workplace bias.  It’s not only the right thing to do.  It’s good for business.

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