If you aren’t sure, try this exercise. Picture yourself running through a crowded airport to catch a flight. As you arrive at the gate, just in time, you’re greeted by a flight attendant. After showing your boarding pass, you jog down the ramp and are last onto the plane. Whew! You make your way to your seat, and the pilot steps out from the cockpit to say hello and welcome everyone on board. You’re in first class, and are soon introduced to the CEO of a major tech company sitting beside you. As you stare out the window, you see a baggage handler get the last luggage on board. Soon, you feel the plan push back from the gate, and you’re on your way.
Now, answer a few important questions. What gender was the CEO? And the flight attendant? What race was the pilot or the baggage handler? All of those decisions you made are informed by a bias. (credit to Valerie Alexander – check out her amazing Ted Talk )
Even so, the term “bias” carries with it a certain weight. In light of this, many readers of this blog will have answered that first question with a “No”. As confident as you may be, I can assure you that you have many. This doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, of course. After all, I did say we all have them.
Understanding and addressing your biases is key in becoming an effective leader. In fact, it’s a key part of being an effective human… but, i’ll focus on leadership here. Biases impact how you hire, coach, develop and even innovate. They are the undercurrent beneath your organizational culture, and can be the difference between success and failure. Bias creates barriers with your team, your peers, and even your customers. In today’s Monday Musings, we’ll explore this part of us, and create a path to self-improvement.
Today, we’ll walk through a bit about what a bias is, and how it can subtly enter your hiring process. We’ll also connect a few dots to how you can start to identify and address bias at this early stage. After all, if it’s in your hiring process, it’s everywhere in your organization. So, strap yourself in as we take off, experience a little turbulance, and finish up with a nice, smooth landing.
To understand bias, we must first define it. Bias is a tendency, inclination, feeling or opinion towards something or someone. But, what does that really mean?
To start, there are two categories of bias: Implicit (Unconscious) and Explicit (Conscious). These categories may seem distinct at first glance, but they often have a very complex, interwoven relationship.
Implicit Bias is the subconscious, or what I call the “fast thinking” part of your brain. It’s where your emotions and reflexes come from. It’s where your survival instinct lives. Heck, it’s even what makes you instantly want to dance when you hear a great tune on the radio. This is the busy autopilot that makes snap decisions on your behalf. You don’t think with this part of your brain, you just react. It’s where all those decisions in the airport example were made.
Explicit Bias, on the other hand, is very direct and purposeful. It can be easily recognized. It’s important to also understand that biases in this category are voluntary. They operate in the secondary, or “deliberate planning” part of the brain. This is the part of the brain that takes time to consider information before acting. These are intentional, calculated decisions.
In this next section, we’ll explore what Unconscious Bias looks like as a part of a regular, everyday process for a number of our listeners. We will focus on Unconscious bias because it is often the most difficult to recognize. As a result, it also tends to linger in an organization and cause the most damage.
Bias finds a way to creep in early. In fact, for most companies it happens before you ever hire. Gendered job titles (i.e. “Journeyman”, “Serviceman”, etc.) are quite common-place, even today. Our journey to equality on this front is remarkably slow. This is surprising, given the number of studies that have shown the benefit of gender neutrality.
Gender-based wording in job descriptions is also a significant challenge in most hiring scenarios. A 2011 study by Gaucher, Friesen and Kay explored gender based language in both title and description of jobs. They not only found that bias still exists, but also revealed how it dissuades individuals from applying. Gendered wording causes the reader to form a perception about the workplace environment and culture.
One other place you will find bias in a job description is under the “Qualifications” section. This is often referred to as an Affinity Bias. It describes an individual you prefer vs. one who is equally qualified for the actual role. For example, many organizations look for a University Degree or MBA to fill as a base standard for all roles. The actual need for someone to use a Bachelor of Arts might not exist, but the perception is that graduates are better employees. That’s a bias – and one that immediately excludes a laundry-list of talented individuals.
Many brilliant, innovative individuals dropped out (or never attended) college on their journey. Anyone here you might hire for your team? Anna Wintour (Vogue), Larry Ellison (Oracle), Ted Turner (Turner Broadcasting), Steve Jobs (Apple), Dave Thomas (Wendy’s)… the list goes on..
Posting on any website immediately creates a bias for likely applicants. One demographic study found LinkedIn is predominantly 35-54 year olds making over $75k / year. Additionally, 80% of these users reside in just 10 countries. Meanwhile, 71% of Facebook users are married, and 64% of twitter users are Caucasian. (source: AdAge) Choosing where to post, or where not to post, introduces yet another bias to your process.
There are even complications posting to your own website. Not only does that introduce a similar demographic bias, but it also trstricts applicants to those actively seeking employment in your industry.
At this stage, we’ve already introduced significant biases that have likely limited the size and quality of our applicant pool. As we transition to reviewing applicants, many individuals and organizations will create a short-list. These are the applicants who seem like the best, based on their resume. With hundreds, and sometimes thousands of applicants, this is often a necessary step for any business.
There are many places where an individual reviewing a resume could be making biased decisions:
Many of these have no impact on the ability of the person to fulfill the role. To combat these biases, many businesses will leverage a panel review of all qualified applicants. The best versions of these reviews happen separately, by cross-functional teams of diverse individuals. Some forms of affinity bias can be eliminated by simply engaging more individuals in the review. Of course, the more diversity within the review group, the better. In other words, choose a variety of genders, ethnicities, educations, even wage lavels. The broader the interview group, the better the reduction of bias.
The final step before you decide who may be joining your team, and it too is wrought with unintentional bias. From judgement about attire, to quality of handshake, this process compels leaders to “judge a book by it’s cover”. Several studies, including the Effect of Applicant’s Clothing on Interviewers Decision to Hire, have linked “Beauty Bias” to hiring practices. In other words, how attractive you are plays a role in how likely you are to get that job. This doesn’t always mean fit, but certainly being well-kempt with proper suit or shirt/pants plays a part.
Firstly, the use of an interview guide with standardized questions can help remove bias. Much like the resume vetting process, panel interviews are also helpful to remove bias. There are many guides to help eliminate Interviewer Bias. I strongly recommend any leader involved in the process, at any stage, to review this type of material on a regularly.
As you can see, we’ve only explored one small piece of the puzzle, albeit a very important one. Consider how many biases we’ve discussed so far, and we haven’t even brought someone onto the team yet. There are several we didn’t touch on as well. For example, Affinity bias drives individuals to choose like-minded candidates instead of those who may hold different viewpoints. This can (and does!) create an environment with limited diversity of thought, stiffling both creativity and innovation.
There are many great courses, videos and more out there on bias. Here are a couple:
The first step in solving any problem is knowing you have one, and we all hold biases. Hopefully, this article has given you pause to consider your own. Eliminating these barriers can be the key to growth as a leader. It can drive businesses to new heights. Or, it can just be a way to create better relationships throughout your life. No matter the purpose, the effort to untangle your bias is worth it.