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Unconsciously biased

Implicit bias does not make you a bad person or organization, but there is no longer an excuse for not taking steps to mitigate it.

(page 1 of 4)

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Believe it or not, and like it or not, possessing implicit (unconscious) bias is part of being a human being. Diversity managers say it’s just the way the human brain works, so even if we view ourselves as tolerant people, we still are fallible in this manner.

Unfortunately, no matter how well intentioned we are, this fallibility manifests itself in the hiring and retention processes, which can thwart the workforce diversity objectives of any business organization. The challenge becomes finding ways to mitigate such automatic firing in our brain so that companies can diversify and derive the many business benefits that come with it.

If you’re involved in the hiring process and this news is a shock to your system, don’t volunteer for the psychiatrist’s couch because the same local diversity managers would like you to understand one thing: We’re all affected by our own implicit biases, but that isn’t necessarily a commentary on our individual character.

“It’s part of being a human being, to have implicit bias,” says Shiva Bidar, chief diversity officer for UW Health. “It’s just the way our brain is wired, so the first thing is to recognize that it’s not about being a good or bad person. It’s really about the way we’re wired as human beings and how do we mitigate that automatic firing of our brain?”

If we are going to achieve diversity goals, we do need to direct our brains to intentionally fight bias in ourselves, in our business organizations, and in hiring and recruitment processes and practices. So, what can business organizations do to mitigate implicit bias at every touch point, but especially in workforce recruitment? Plenty, if we’re willing to admit our bias-related flaws and work on them, both personally and professionally.

To learn about best practices that guard against implicit bias, we spoke to Bidar and other diversity executives in local organizations that are part of Madison’s Diversity Roundtable, including: Angela Russell, vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion for CUNA Mutual Group; Justin Cruz, vice president of inclusionary excellence for American Family Insurance; and Brenda Gonzalez, diversity manager for Agrace, a nonprofit hospice and palliative care organization.

It should be noted that fighting implicit bias is just one component of driving diversity, but it’s a very important best practice that makes it possible to build a workforce that reflects the nation’s changing demographics and diversity of your consumer base. That said, our expert panel offers six diverse bits of advice to ward off bias.

Take stock in bias

Before the strategizing begins, you should understand the difference between implicit and explicit bias. Implicit bias is the unconscious bias that we don’t know that we have, whereas explicit bias is the more overt form of discrimination based on an individual characteristic, whether it’s race, gender, sexual orientation, and so forth.

“There is a whole variety of things that represent the explicit biases that we have, and those are generally known,” Russell explains. “The insidious stuff is the implicit, unconscious bias, and what’s interesting is that the implicit bias and explicit bias are not the same. In Madison, we have a tendency to think that we love everyone, that we have zero biases, but if that were the actual truth, we wouldn’t see the kind of racial disparities that we do.”

Be on guard

Organizations are taking more preventive steps to remove bias in the hiring process. They are blanking out names or any sort of cultural identifiers on resumes to avoid favoring Brenda over Laticia, and they are even investing in software that does it for them. Even before bias-proofing resumés, they are revamping the wording of job descriptions in job postings in order to avoid encouraging one gender and discouraging another from applying.

“If you write a post and state that you want aggressive, self-starting, bold employees, what the literature has found over time is that a lot of these words tend to be more associated with one [male] or another gender,” Cruz states. “So, just being very intentional about how you chose your words so that you do not predispose the hiring pool toward one gender or another.

“According to the research, women might be more likely to apply for a job where the posting references a strong collaborator or communicator, whereas a posting that uses words like competitive self-starter, bold, and so forth might be more likely to attract men.”

Even if you revamp your job descriptions to focus on skills and qualifications, de-emphasize demographic factors, standardize interviews, and otherwise “de-bias” your hiring practices, individual bias can creep into the process. As you engage in each level of the hiring process, ask yourself a simple question: How does bias enter into our recruiting and retention?

Bidar has studied how bias manifests itself in the health care industry, both in terms of employment practices and the provision of care. “In hiring, we see in every industry that there are well-documented biases in recruiting processes, starting with assumptions people are making by just reading names in resumés,” she states. “In other words, studies that show if the name is Joe, with the same exact content in the resumé as when the name is Juan, the rate of people getting called for interviews is very different. So, there is that piece, and then there is the piece of what happens during an interview, in the interview processes, and some of the biases in those practices.”

Part of being on guard is to equip yourself and your staff with what are called “equity tools” to help you become cognizant of your own bias and how it applies to evaluating jobs candidates. As explained above, these tools can be as simple as asking hard questions of yourself. “Have some question that you’re asking yourself, in a very cognizant way, at the end of the interview process,” Bidar says. “Usually, it’s filling in a form or having some type of format where you say, ‘OK, here is what I thought about this candidate,’ and in those forms you integrate questions that really get at bias. Even literally asking yourself, ‘Am I possibly having any bias based on this individual’s background, race, ethnicity, or LGBTQ status?’ So, people are taking a moment to ask themselves about bias.”

To address bias, it’s important to first be cognizant of it, and there is bias awareness training available for those who are involved in hiring processes. “One strategy is to make sure there is training around implicit bias and how you can impact an individuals’ thinking and behavior,” Bidar notes, “so you have it at a really conscious place in their minds.”

Management personnel also must be aware of how it causes harm during performance reviews. According to Russell, bias creeps into performance reviews in several ways. There is “recency bias” in which an employee has a good year overall but struggles with a year-end project that remains fresh in the reviewer’s mind and too much emphasis is placed on it, and then “self-inflicted” bias where women and people of color self-rate themselves lower than a Caucasian male would. The latter is similar to what often happens to women when they negotiate salaries — they tend to undervalue themselves.

Managers can guard against this by giving themselves enough time to actually do an adequate review before meeting with an employee whose performance is under review. “Sometimes, bias really begins to show up when you’re making super-quick decisions, so allow yourself enough time to be fair,” Russell advises. “If you have a question, talk to a trusted advisor and ask them if there is something you’re not seeing quite right.”


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