You’ve probably heard about “bias” appearing in hiring systems used by big companies like Amazon. As much as we like to think of technology as being more objective than human beings, screening programs are all programmed by human beings.
Does that mean the people who are programming AI and automation systems are purposefully designing their code to weed out women or Black candidates? Not necessarily! A lot of the time, the biases that get programmed in are unconscious. Unconscious bias also exists in our HR departments, our boardrooms, and even in our company culture.
What is unconscious bias exactly, and how can you strike back at it? The answers are important for anyone looking at DEI measures.
What Is Unconscious Bias?
Most of us know what bias is. It’s a marked preference for something over another, usually as a result of opinion or belief. If a person believes people who prefer sandwiches to soup are better thinkers, they’re biased against people who like soup.
Some biases, like the sandwich-soup scenario, may be relatively harmless. In other cases, bias is much more harmful. For example, a bias against people of colour or women may lead your management team to only ever promote white men.
Most of us actively work against these biases in our workplaces! Yet, very often, they still crop up. We might review our recent promotions and notice that we’ve only promoted white men. We may argue that there’s a good reason for this: these people are hard workers or they have seniority or they have the best qualifications.
We should ask ourselves, though, if unconscious bias is playing a role. It most likely is. We often view men as being more capable as women, even if they have the same experience and credentials. What we think is meritocracy is actually bias.
A 2019 study of hiring managers shows how easy it is for bias to creep in. In the study, researchers sent out two identical resumes. The only change was the name at the top of the resume. “John” got twice as many callbacks as “Jamal,” even though their qualifications were identical.
Unconscious bias can also be seen in hiring decisions themselves. An employer may hire only white people, arguing that candidates from other groups weren’t a good “fit” with their culture. We need to stop and ask ourselves, is bias in play here? Why would people of colour not be a “good fit” with our culture?
Other biases include the idea that women need more time off to take care of children, that men are more available to work long hours, and so on.
How Can You Defeat Something You’re Not Aware Of?
The first step to combating unconscious bias is to become aware of it. You’re in a good place, because you’re already doing that. Once you realize that unconscious bias exists, it’s easier to recognize it
Unconscious bias does not make us “good” or “bad” people, in part because we all have unconscious biases. These often stem from the society we live in and the cultural values we have. For example, many Canadians have negative opinions of older people. They may see older people as “frail” or “useless.” We may question if an older person has the right skills or if they’re a “good fit” for our younger team.
The next step is to look for patterns. Do you regularly hire older people, or does your hiring team show a bias for younger candidates? If all of your recent promotions went to men, you may want to ask why you’re not promoting any women.
If the answer is that there were no qualified women, you need to ask why that is too! Are your female employees getting the same opportunities to participate in training or mentorship? What roles are you hiring them into? Asking these questions and answering them truthfully will expose unconscious bias.
Use Data and employee Feedback to Structure New Policies
Once you’ve spotted unconscious bias operating, you need to take steps to correct it. Left unchecked, unconscious bias hurts your business in a number of ways. You may miss out on talented candidates during hiring. You might not be able to fulfill your DEI initiatives, as your company culture and workplace don’t truly support diverse team members. You could experience higher turnover, negative perception from job market candidates, and more. You may even end up passing over highly talented employees when it comes time to promote people.
Data can help you see patterns that could point to where bias exists. Remember to dig deeper than the surface level. If you never hire older candidates, it’s not likely that every single older candidate isn’t qualified. If you never promote women, there may be a problem further up the chain.
You can talk to employees about their experiences. Do they find the environment supportive? For example, you might ask older employees if they feel like they’re included in activities and supported by benefits plans. Escape room team-building exercises might make older employees feel a bit “left out.”
Using the insights you gather, you can work to make your policies more supportive of everyone on your team. New hiring policies could help you clamp down on unconscious bias in the hiring process, and revising onboarding can help employees “fit in” sooner and feel more supported.
Tailoring those policies starts with having the right data and delivery system. An HRIS can help. If you want to learn more, then get in touch with our team to discover just how the right technology can help you spot and overcome the unconscious biases that are holding you back.