21st Century Unconscious Bias — The POWER That Lies Beneath
By Kimberly S. Reed, Managing Partner, Reed Development Group

Whether one believes it or not, we all have unconscious biases. Often, the term has negative connotations. Being constantly associated with words like prejudice, discrimination and stereotype, makes the idea of “having a bias” seem like a “terrible” thing. This is no revelation, considering by definition bias is a “tendency or inclination, particularly one that prevents unprejudiced consideration of a question.”

I spend a lot of time talking with leaders about their diversity and inclusion imperatives. I often hear them declare, we are doing very well in this area of our HR organization. “We always choose the best person for the job regardless of race of gender,” they say; or, “We promote a respectful and an embracing work environment and treat everyone equally.” The mistake with this belief is that there is no such thing as a meritocracy in the workplace. There is never a level playing field, and we do treat different people differently, often our talent and internal leadership pipelines are indicative of this.

Biases, whether conscious or unconscious, are shaped by our experiences, culture, education and economic backgrounds. One could say those biases are simply an extension of our diversity as individuals. Our biases affect not only our worldview, but also our decision-making — sometimes without us being aware of our behaviors.

As HR professionals and diversity practitioners within our respective organizations, it’s not our role to point fingers as it relates to unconscious biases, and we should refrain from the unachievable task of completely eliminating them. We can, however, address those biases so they are not impeding on the organization’s goal to create a balanced, diverse and inclusive workforce.

An increasing number of studies have shown the significant impact unconscious biases can have on talent processes and potentially lead to forms of institutional discrimination. For example, CareerBuilder conducted a study that showed 34 percent of hiring managers use social networks to find reasons not to hire a candidate. Most of those reasons were associated with provocative comments, photos, posts or information related to the candidate drinking. Although all are seemingly reasonable ways to pass personal judgment on an individual’s character, there is a high-level of bias and subjectivity involved in making those decisions both of which have ethical and legal implications. This does not mean social media shouldn’t be used to enhance recruiting efforts; rather organizations must work to implement strategies to effectively address the biases that may pervade these processes as well.

Today, cyberspace presents even more implications as it relates to addressing unconscious biases. As recruiters leverage social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn to source candidates, information that would typically be protected is now easily available. Pictures, religion, political affiliations, parental status, organization affiliations and social activities are all areas of a candidate’s life that a recruiter or hiring manager typically wouldn’t know from a traditional résumé. However, Google and social networks provide easy access to all that, and more.

The reality is, we all make biased decisions, but we can tackle the hidden ones to make us aware of what is determining our actions. Generally speaking, being aware of unconscious bias can create a more inclusive company culture as well as increase the talent pool for your organization. The reason for this is that with lower levels of unconscious bias, you will reach higher objectivity when it comes to recruitment. You enable your teams to select the best candidate, who is most suitable for the job, instead of making a biased decision.

How to Tackle Unconscious Bias
One way of tackling unconscious bias is by providing your staff with training before the next recruitment phase or as part of a broader inclusion and diversity training program. Training enables staff to increase their self-awareness and reflection, and it gives them the opportunity to discover their unconscious preconceptions influencing their behavior. My point is: when we know what is impacting us, we can change our actions. I have three tips to tackle unconscious bias:

  1. Redefine the labels you use: Away from “discrimination and intolerance,” and towards “diversity, equity and inclusion.” The key is to increase self-awareness and understand that hidden biases go beyond our usual perception of us and others.
  2. Review your company values and investigate which hidden biases may be the foundation for your organizational culture.
  3. Survey your employees on their experiences with unconscious biases or hidden barriers that may exist within your organization. Tailor training and intervention based on your discovery work.

In summary, we cannot eliminate bias. However, we can acknowledge that bias does exist and that various types of bias clearly have an impact on decision-making. People and organizations that honestly and consistently try to understand their attitudes and behaviors will be able to cultivate a working environment in which individuals can bring their best and authentic selves to the table. What strategies does your organization take to be inclusive? Have these strategies been effective? Why or why not? Share your thoughts with me at [email protected].

If this article interested you, you can gain additional knowledge on the topic by attending CTHRA’s Future Forward HR Symposium on November 3 in Philadelphia. Kimberly Reed will be joined by Andrea Agnew, Executive Director of Workforce Diversity & Inclusion for Comcast Cable in a powerful session titled “Tackling Unconscious Bias.” Register now!
HR Pulse is a bi-monthly resource published exclusively for the members of the Cable and Telecommunications Human Resources Association.

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