Hidden Bias More Subtle and Difficult to Recognize than Bias of Decades Past

Uncover and address ingrained preconceptions

Dana Wilkie By Dana Wilkie April 25, 2017

CHICAGO—How often do you decide that what you really need to best fill a job at your company is a good "cultural fit"?

More than half the attendees at a presentation on unconscious bias raised their hands when asked that question here Monday at the Society for Human Resource Management's (SHRM's) Talent Management Conference & Exposition.

And speaker Shawn Andrews quickly challenged them.

"It's very common these days for companies to hire based on 'fit,' " said Andrews, founder and CEO of Andrews Research International in Irvine, Calif.  "But what's 'fit' based on? 'Fit' is generally based on biases and our own judgments of candidates. It's not based on competencies. 'Fit' is a nebulous concept. And how do you measure it? When we look for 'fit,' we're excluding all these other potential candidates, automatically. It's a dangerous parameter when it comes to hiring."

Andrews said the overt workplace bias of decades ago has largely been replaced by unconscious bias, which she described as far more subtle and often difficult to recognize in ourselves and others.

Nonetheless, she said, such bias prevents women, minorities and others from landing jobs or moving ahead at a company.

Andrews pointed out that such hidden bias has been blamed for a largely male presence at the nation's top technology companies. At Amazon, she said, 61 percent of the workforce is male; at Microsoft, it's 73 percent; at Intel, it's 75 percent; and at Facebook, it's 68 percent.

Andrews ticked off a list of biases that she said many people may not even realize they harbor. There are biases, she said, based on weight, height, education, culture and experience. And then there's one really insidious bias—affinity bias—that she says almost all of us are guilty of.

Affinity bias refers to the tendency for one person to relate to—and advocate for—another because the two have a common bond. Maybe the two have mutual friends, go to the same church, have young children, went to the same college or enjoy the same hobbies.

"Your neighbor says his son just graduated from college, and can you help him find a job?" Andrews said. "You pass the boy's resume to a hiring manager in your company, and two years later, he's promoted to a leadership position.

"One subtle advantage leads to another subtle advantage, and pretty soon, you have unequal opportunities. By passing on that resume, you bypassed the standard recruiting process. We all do this, but I urge you to resist these natural affinities because they maintain the status quo."

Andrews offered this advice for avoiding hidden biases:

  • When someone suggests a candidate would be a good "fit," challenge that person to be more specific. For instance, if a younger hiring manager prefers a younger candidate to an older one because the former is a good fit, "have her specify why she feels the way she does," Andrews said. "Is it technological experience? Or is it because the team is younger? Ask [her]: 'What would happen if we hired that person and they were in this particular situation?' You don't want to hire a younger person only to have them fail in a job over their head."
  • Consider assembling a hiring team of diverse company staffers who will collectively decide on a job applicant. Put someone in charge of pointing out when an interview question or a candidate assessment may be based on hidden biases.
  • Discuss with hiring managers—ahead of time—what qualifications the company wants in its new hire based on competencies. Ask for these qualifications to be concrete, she said, so that interviewers are less likely to be influenced by candidate attributes that are irrelevant to those competencies.
  • Point out affinity bias, Andrews said. "You could say, 'Sue, I notice you're close in age to one candidate. Other than this commonality, what competencies does [the candidate] have that make you feel she's best suited to this role?' "
  • Challenge the company to bring in candidates who are distinctly different from the majority of those at the workplace.

Andrews also offered advice for unconscious bias that crops up in day-to-day interactions among employees: A woman presents an idea during a meeting and is ignored. But when her male colleague broaches the same idea—perhaps in a more assertive and confident manner—he's applauded.

To deter these situations, she said, try this:

  • Before a meeting, ask for everyone's suggestions in writing, which Andrews said can diminish the tendency to overlook those who are introverted, or who aren't as quick on their feet in gatherings.
  • Rotate meeting leadership roles so everyone has a chance to be in charge.
  • Speak out if a colleague's contribution is ignored or dismissed. "If you see that some people on a team are experiencing bias, mention that 'You know, Jane hasn't been active in the team meetings for the last few weeks. Why is that? What's going on?' "
  • Have a "no interruption" policy during meetings.
  • When a more assertive person echoes the idea of someone less extroverted, let the group know where the idea originated. "You can say, 'Thank you, Jack, for bringing back the idea that Nancy mentioned earlier,' " Andrews suggested. Then, she advised, ask Nancy to elaborate on her idea.

­[SHRM members-only platform: SHRM Connect] 

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