The Management Series

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Oct 2017

Can Your Firm Reduce Discrimination in Hiring?

Most people and companies are certain they are not biased. But research has shown that most people are flat wrong.

The problem is that most bias is unconscious and/or embedded in the hiring process in subtle ways or through decades of common practices that has not been challenged or thought through anew.

“Unconscious racism, ageism, and sexism play a big role in whom we hire. But there are steps you can take to recognize and reduce these biases,” says writer Rebecca Knight in an article for Harvard Business Review titled “7 Practical Ways to Reduce Bias in Your Hiring Process.”

Knight sifted through research and interviewed experts to pinpoint specific steps businesses can take to wring more bias out of their process for recruiting, hiring and promoting personnel.

The initial step may seem obvious but is the stepping stone to all the others: Training. “Awareness training is the first step to unraveling unconscious bias because it allows employees to recognize that everyone possesses them and to identify their own,” Iris Bohnet, director of the Women and Public Policy Program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, told Knight.

Knight then walks readers through various ways to reform your hiring practice so unconscious bias can play little or no role in selecting finalists.

-- Consider using blind resume reviews. Without names or personal details, hiring managers pay greater attention to accomplishments, skill sets and other relevant measures of future likely job performance. Software is available to strip out identifying information and standardize information.

--Use work sample tests that can be compared among candidates. “A skill test forces employers to critique the quality of a candidate’s work versus unconsciously judging them based on appearance, gender, age, and even personality,” Harvard Business School’s Francisca Gino advised.

-- Skip unstructured interviews. Freewheeling interviews where “a candidate’s experience and expertise are meant to unfold organically through conversation” are not reliable for predicting success, Gino warned. But interviews based on the same set of questions make employers “focus on the factors that have a direct impact on performance,” she added.

Knight also includes case studies that illustrate ways unconscious bias can creep into the process—and be identified. One example involved a hiring manager who pushed other managers involved in evaluating candidates to be specific in their judgments.

“Sometimes I hear feedback like, ‘She isn’t a good cultural fit,’ the manager told Knight. So I say back, ‘Tell me exactly what you mean.’ … And if they say, ‘I can’t put my finger on it,’ I ignore it. But if they say something like, ‘She sees things as black-or-white’ or ‘She jumps to conclusions,’ then I consider it.”

Also make sure you see Victoria Budson’s piece in the July/August edition of Leader’s Edge, “Untapped Talent: Your Hiring Biases Hurt Your Business.” She founded the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

“Businesses that successfully identify and promote talent without biases, such as gender, have proven to be those best able to compete,” she writes.

Budson points out that bias may not just effect who is hired, but how much people are paid, noting that women often earn considerably less than their male counterparts. She suggests doing what amounts to an audit of your workplace, evaluating how diverse it actually is and whether salaries appear equitable.

Budson says it’s helpful to understand that unconscious bias is a human foible and applies to almost all of us. That’s why focusing on standardized evaluation methods, rather than so-called gut feelings and impulses, are so important to implement.

“We do not need to be perfect managers to be effective leaders, but we must build the right systems and use proven tools to help us,” she concludes. “In so doing, you will not only help your business succeed but create a bit more equality along the way.”

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