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.

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.”



Cultivate community partners

In building a diverse workforce, you’re not necessarily alone, especially in Madison. When considering local training programs, there are any number of community partners willing to help, including Centro Hispano, the Urban League of Greater Madison, and the YWCA of Dane County. Reach out to them and use the services of such community-based organizations because some of them directly relate to hiring.

Bidar refers to this as intentional engagement and notes that diverse communities will notice when you’re reaching out to them, and they will reciprocate. “The other strategies around hiring are just upstream in receiving applications, making sure that your organization is spending time establishing partnerships in the community in order to attract diverse applications,” Bidar states. “One of the excuses we hear in recruitment is that we’re not hiring people of color because we don’t have applicants of color, and part of it is because the strategies they use to get the word out are strategies that have been built over time and are not focused on bringing in applicants of color to apply for positions.”

So, it’s about making sure an organization has strategies to go into communities of color to make sure that residents know about positions that are available, that they are advertising in places that have a diverse audience — specifically in communities of color or the LGBTQ community — and so people see that the organization is making an effort to recruit. “Make sure that you’re out there and the community understands that you’re engaging intentionally in the work of eliminating bias, racism, and other forms of ‘ism’ within your system and organization,” Bidar explains, “but also so that they are providing you with ongoing feedback so that you can see where you need to improve. Being intentionally out there and hearing other voices in the community is critical.”

UW Health partners with the Urban League of Greater Madison in providing employment training for some of its open positions. The Urban League is involved in designing the training so it can ensure that it meets the needs of the community. “They are also looking at your application process. They do give us that feedback, and they also assist us with getting people through the process of the application,” Bidar adds. “So, it ranges the whole gamut from assisting us in employment training to looking at our processes and giving feedback, to helping us get the word out about positions — all of them.”

The YWCA of Dane County offers training to organizations that want to create equitable and inclusive organizations, and yes, part of the training will require the painful self-reflection about the implicit bias inherent in virtually every person and organization. While an HR staff can get the ball rolling on unconscious bias training or do staff “learnings” in parallel with outside training from community partnerships, Gonzalez believes programs like the YWCA’s equitable organization training create “a safer, braver space to be able to talk about some of the things that organizations need to have in place.”

Part of being intentional about mitigating bias is to leave your organizational and sometimes personal cocoon and experience different environments and people “so that you can really start having a different perspective and your brain starts building and starts moving away from stereotypes and building new patterns of seeing people and thinking of people,” Bidar advises.

Gonzalez believes taking these steps would prevent organizations from making the common excuse of not finding enough candidates from a particular group. “For us, it was important to say, ‘We need to focus on our internal process to recognize biases before we can say that we don’t have enough candidates,’” she states. “We realized very quickly that it was important to partner with organizations like Centro Hispano, Urban League, the Boys and Girls Club, to name a few, that directly create a pipeline for some of the roles that are very important in our organization.”

Gonzalez cited the example of Agrace recruiting in communities of color to help build a nursing pipeline, from certified nursing assistants (where Centro Hispano has been particularly helpful) to registered nurses. The community groups also are willing to review job descriptions so that they send inclusive signals and are more accessible to people of color and other underrepresented groups.

Among the groups and organizations that have visited Agrace facilities for community-learning programs are the Wellness Center in Baraboo and Ho-Chunk Nation, whose representatives discussed health care in the context of Ho Chunk culture. “So, we are able to create basic training for our staff, knowing our staff, knowing where we are, and knowing the nursing profession or hospice and palliative care,” Gonzalez says. “At the same time, we have needed to bring in other experts. We have created community learning, so we have invited professionals from the different communities to come in and talk to us about the cultural and linguistically appropriate services that we need to be able to create.”

Train relentlessly

Russell and others recommend a combination of internal and external training, but when approaching bias-awareness training, she recommends that organizations view it as a form of muscle memory. It’s not a “one-off” exercise where the skill-building mission is quickly accomplished by one training program and then you’re done. “It doesn’t work that way,” Russell states. “The skills around becoming a diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace are similar to learning a new muscle memory. So, if you play an instrument and are into music, you are not going to go to one music lesson, for example, and become a pianist. You have to go through multiple lessons and in between lessons, you have to practice. So, there is awareness. There is skill building. There is practice and then how do we imbed what we’re learning into our policies day in and day out?”

CUNA Mutual started training related to unconscious bias in 2015, employing enterprise-wide training. Working closely with recruiting staff, the organization conducted a series of four two-hour sessions, drilling deep into unconscious bias because it wanted to understand the subject from a recruiting standpoint. Following the deep dive, it mapped out the entire recruiting process, going decision item by decision item and addressing what potential bias looks like at every step in the process.

Says Russell: “We looked at how can bias creep into job descriptions? How can bias creep into how we share job opportunities with our networks? If our networks look just like us, are we potentially not sharing the jobs as widely and as broadly as we can? How does bias creep into resumé review and then the interview process?”

According to Russell, CUNA Mutual’s recruiters have been “skilled up” to work with hiring managers to check them on their own biases along the way. They even check the vice president of DEI, who has hired employees, when it comes to her own potential for bias, and Russell doesn’t mind. In fact, she was “super proud” because she views the honest feedback as a sign the organization’s bias-awareness training is bearing fruit.

“I’ve had our recruiters say, ‘Hey Ang, you’ve taught us about this implicit bias and we feel like some of your unconscious bias may be showing,’ and I’ll ask how? And they will say, ‘In this job description, do you really need a bachelor’s degree in order to do this job? Or are you hiring a position too similar to your personality versus rounding out the team with someone who has a personality that’s broader?’ So, it’s been really helpful to have our recruiters get skills in understanding implicit and unconscious bias, and be able to identify it as they work with hiring managers in the process.”

On the hiring manager’s side, CUNA Mutual has developed what Russell calls a “one-pager” on what they can do to reduce the impact of implicit bias during the hiring process. CUNA hiring managers also have access to a couple of TED Talks on implicit bias that are available to all employees. One is titled “What Does My Head Scarf Mean to You?” This is about a Muslim woman and how bias creeps into her professional life because she wears a hijab. Another TED Talk accessible to CUNA Mutual employees features Verna Myers, vice president of inclusion for Netflix, discussing steps to mitigate unconscious bias.



Form diverse hiring teams

One of the business reasons to drive diversity is that it can help your organization appeal to a more diverse customer base. To build a more diverse organization, it helps to form diverse teams that are involved in the hiring and recruitment process. This can not only help guard against implicit bias, but it also brings different perspectives about what makes a quality hire.

One of the best practices is to try to have diverse panels of people review employment practices and job applications, review resumés, interview job candidates, and otherwise be involved in the “sifting and winnowing” process that leads to a new hire. “When you have diverse teams working in an environment, you can see that implicit bias starts being mitigated by virtue of having different people on the team who can point to it,” Bidar says. “You’re not seeing it because you have that unconscious, implicit bias, and another member of the team is seeing it from a different angle.”

The wisdom of forming diverse teams lends credence to the belief that inclusion is a necessary companion of diversity, Gonzalez states. Whether inclusion is accomplished through the forming of employee resource groups for African Americans, Latinos, and members of the LGBTQ community, or inclusionary leadership teams, it can help make diversity programs more successful. “Once you think through diversity, or the plans for diversifying the workforce, then it has to be automatic to think about inclusion,” Gonzalez says. “Otherwise, it’s not going to work.”

Rather than “check yourself” when it comes to possible bias, Cruz prefers to use the word prevention, and one means of prevention involves the team approach. Historically, he notes that hiring was very much an isolated experience, but with potential bias in mind, the process has opened to focus more on team hiring, perhaps lunch with existing employees, and even presentations to give candidates an opportunity to demonstrate their skills — all designed to assess candidates from a number of different angles and perspectives and minimize the degree to which one person’s unconscious bias can be factored into the decision. “It’s now about involving multiple people with a variety of approaches and environments to get a more holistic, well-balanced, and objective view of a candidate,” he says.

Another idea is to focus more on skills and less on fit and culture because the latter can be a double-edged sword. While it’s important to understand how diversity relates to culture, Cruz advises caution so that it doesn’t become too much of a personality contest because “that’s where you are really prone to bias,” he says.

Culture is an important consideration, however, in driving diversity. Two local employers, American Family Insurance and CUNA Mutual Group, were paid the ultimate cultural compliment with a perfect score of 100 on the 2019 Corporate Equality Index (CEI), a premier benchmarking survey and report on corporate policies and practices related to LGBTQ workplace equality. The CEI, administered by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, included American Family for the fourth consecutive year and CUNA Mutual for the third straight year.

For Cruz, the recognition is about more than establishing employee resource groups or a full complement of fringe benefits specifically for LGBTQ employees. Such rankings reflect the opinions of employees who are interviewed, which validates their worth, but ultimately the cultural change will sustain the entire process of change. “It’s not that hard to come in and force down from the top the fact that starting today, we’re going to have parking spaces for expectant mothers, and you get the right executive ear on that and you can make anything worthwhile happen,” Cruz says. “But the only way to truly sustain that level of commitment and make not just those changes but more changes down the road, and eventually get to where you want to be, is to truly change the culture.”

Set goals, not quotas

This advice is more strategic than tactical, but Cruz has set diversity goals for his division and for the American Family Insurance brand. The goals pertain to the percentage of women the company is striving for in management roles and the percentage of racially and ethnically diverse individuals in the organization and in management roles. “This also is something you have to be very conscious about because it can also be a double-edged sword if it’s not managed well,” he advises. “The idea is that you don’t manage to the number, you manage to the process that gets you to the number.

“The thing about having numbers is not so much to just blindly achieve at all costs because then you end up with quotas, and that’s not the objective, but the numbers drive the behavior. The numbers drive the commitment, and they ensure focus and effort are consistently in place in order to achieve those goals. Without the numbers, it does become very difficult to maintain that momentum and that level of commitment. So, setting strategic thresholds is a big step.”

So is establishing the frame of reference. When Cruz assumed his current position, his department was called the diversity and inclusion department. While that’s certainly appropriate and at the core of what the department does, American Family felt the unit should be called inclusive excellence because it puts the focus on the business. “The excellence that refers to is business excellence, operational excellence, so how we perform as a company,” Cruz explains. “The idea is the very explicit recognition that optimal performance is best achieved through diverse teams working in an inclusive culture. So, by putting the focus on the business, you bring the broader business on board and you gain much stronger commitment because people recognize this isn’t just about making people feel good. This isn’t just about numbers and it’s not just about making sure everybody is playing nice and everybody feels valued. This is about leveraging the engagement that you get to truly empower people, to unleash their full potential.”

Computational bias

As Madison continues to build its technology sector, it’s worth noting that an emerging source of bias, one with implications for every aspect of business operation, is directly related to the computing machines we use. It’s called algorithmic bias and its wide-ranging effects could undermine any diversity-conscious organization. Algorithms are, after all, created by biased human beings, and as artificial intelligence (machine learning) becomes increasingly entrenched in the economy, technology companies and their business partners must be aware of how this form of bias impacts their operations.

Russell is among the local diversity experts who are sounding the alarm. With the information technology industry still largely male dominated, the potential for algorithmic bias is no remote impossibility. “If you have one group of people just looking at things from one vantage point, you’re going to have bias,” Russell states. “So, that reinforces the need to have a diverse workplace.”



Unhealthy bias

When it comes to bias in health care, the problem does not just pertain to the hiring and recruiting process, but the provision of care, as well.

That’s according to Shiva Bidar, chief diversity officer for UW Health, who is trying to address how bias manifests itself in the health care industry. When health outcomes — including mortality rates and lifespans — are worse for people of color and members of the LGBTQ community, that raises suspicions that implicit and explicit bias plays a role in those outcomes.

Among the ways implicit bias has surfaced industry wide is when African-American patients come to register before an appointment, and they automatically are asked to produce a Medicaid insurance card, even though they have private insurance. The assumption is they are economically disadvantaged and served by Medicaid, the federal government’s health care program for the poor, and not gainfully employed and insured through their employer. Given that the majority of poor people in the country happen to be Caucasians, it’s a biased stereotype that can impact medical services.

Bidar also sees bias with assumptions about a patient’s marital status. “In the LGBTQ community, we often hear assumptions being made about parents,” she notes. “Somebody comes in and it’s two moms with a child, and sometimes the questions that are asked are, ‘OK, so mom is here, and dad hopefully is in the household, right?’ So, there are two moms and that’s all part of the implicit bias that we have about populations and people.”

When compliance isn’t inclusive

When it comes to fighting bias, inclusivity is considered to be one of the best weapons a business organization can have. For CUNA Mutual Group’s Angela Russell, this truth was reinforced by an episode that involved a physically disabled person who attended an internal training program for interns, and it had nothing to do with the hiring process.

Ironically, the discovery came as Russell and a colleague conducted an internal training program on diversity and inclusion to a group of interns, one of whom was in a motorized wheelchair who was eager to point out something that could help CUNA Mutual go above and beyond Americans With Disabilities Act compliance.

“He came back to our main building on the CUNA Mutual campus, and while he could get into the lobby just fine with push-button accessibility, he could not get into our overall atrium because there was no push-button accessibility and the glass doors that we had didn’t work with him in his wheelchair,” Russell explains. “So, when I contacted facilities to say, ‘Hey, we have an issue because one of our interns isn’t able to get in and out of our building the way that he needs to,’ their response was, ‘Well, we did what was ADA compliant.’”

For Russell, the lesson is that compliant isn’t always inclusive, which is another reason to strive for a broader level of organizational diversity. “That may be our own bias because I didn’t have those physical limitations, our facilities folks didn’t have those physical limitations, and we had no idea that we had a part of our facility that was not inclusive,” she states. “So, that’s another reason to have diverse teams because you’re not going to come to the best answer for everyone, or an inclusive answer, unless you have that diversity.”

Take the test

Harvard University’s Implicit Association Tests can yield a few clues about your individual biases in a number of categories. The results can be a bit of a shock for those who view themselves as bias-free, but self-perceived perfection does have its downsides. As CUNA Mutual Group’s Angela Russell notes, it’s OK, so just take the test(s) and engage in a bit of worthwhile self-discovery. “We all have our biases, our own unconscious [implicit] biases, and until we make that implicit more explicit, it’s going to be hard to understand why understanding bias matters and what you can do about it.”

To take a test or several tests, visit: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html.

Click here to sign up for the free IB ezine — your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.