Become Aware of Personal Bias, and You'll Improve Ethical Practice

By Lindsay Northon, M.A. Jul 12, 2016
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To have personal biases is to be human. We all hold our own subjective world views and are influenced and shaped by our experiences, beliefs, values, education, family, friends, peers and others. Being aware of one's biases is vital to both personal well-being and professional success.

People with a high degree of self-awareness are likely to be more adept in one of the most critical competencies for HR professionals, Ethical Practice. When you realize what your personal triggers are—triggers that contribute to the creation of personal biases—you can actively manage, mitigate or avoid them. In the workplace, developing self-awareness helps you navigate potential obstacles to career success. The ultimate goal is to achieve happiness through building and maintaining healthy relationships.

When you are responsible for hiring others, self-awareness of your biases—positive or favorable, as well as negative or unfavorable—is particularly important. Hiring decisions should be based on objective position qualifications and requirements, not the subjective biases of the hiring authority.

For example, it might seem natural to "relate" more to the job applicant from your hometown or alma mater who likes the same music as you do. But it would be irresponsible to extend an offer of employment to that candidate based on these positive or favorable biases. Stated this way it seems self-evident, but if you were unaware of your biases, would you realize how they were influencing your decisions?

A negative or unfavorable bias could be any arbitrary factor not directly related to the bona fide qualifications a candidate must possess to successfully perform a job. Let's say you need someone to plant a tree. You are also aware of a personal bias: that more education, higher credentials or greater years of experience lead to better outcomes. Would you place an ad for a board-certified landscape architect with a master's degree in engineering, a Ph.D. in agriculture and 20 years of experience? You could certainly do that, and your tree would be properly planted. But the overqualified person hired from this approach would be paid more than a gardener and likely would overthink the solution, not be engaged in the work and take longer to complete it. In this case, the bias would blur the hiring decision (in terms of the relevance or business necessity of the bona fide occupational qualification), making it less predictive of performance and costing more money.

Personal biases also can be costly if you fail to attract and retain top talent and select a candidate who is a good fit. Plus, there may be legal implications, if a determination is made that a hiring authority unfairly discriminated against a job applicant.

Be cognizant of these dangers by getting to know your professional self. Help others in the organization do the same. Developing self-awareness is an ongoing process, so take the time to gain the insights that will gradually help reduce the influence of your personal biases. Start by asking yourself two questions: "What are my values?" and "Are my values compatible with my organization's values?" When the two coexist, the result is easier navigation of Ethical Practice and a more satisfying career.

Then, consider the following practical tips:​

  • Test yourself. There are several psychometric tests to choose from, including the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the Big Five, the Predictive Index or the Strengths Finder. These tests help you understand how you perceive people and situations.
  • Get regular feedback from colleagues—formal (e.g., part of a 180- or 360-degree assessment) or informal (e.g., conversations with supervisors, peers or direct reports).
  • Pause and reflect. Study yourself and your reactions. How do you react to change? What do you feel when something doesn't go the way you expected it to? Take notes.
  • Expand your horizons. Proactively look for new experiences to discover more about yourself and your reactions to unfamiliar situations.
  • Learn to know yourself. This may be the most challenging, but find time for solitude and to relax. It's amazing what you learn about yourself when you sit with your thoughts. Meditate. (Start with a simple breathing exercise. Close your eyes and inhale through your nose for four counts and exhale through your nose for four counts. Repeat for 10 rounds.)
Lindsay Northon, M.A., is specialist for HR competencies at SHRM.
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