Hiring bias? Did I just use the b-word? Not us. So say countless companies, recruiters. Perhaps not overtly, but unconscious bias still influences recruiting, hiring and firing decisions everywhere , from the tiny little startup to the Fortune 500s.
We can’t mitigate what we don’t recognize. Also: claim obliviousness and it will cost you. You can bet that the suit for unspecified damages brought by Gregory Anderson against his former employer, Yahoo, is already churning over millions in legal fees.
Did I just cite a white male as an example of a bias victim? Yup. Aside from clear issues of diversity that have to do with minorities, women, the disabled, and older professionals, other documented victims of hiring bias include men under six feet tall. They’re routinely considered “too short” to be leaders in the C-suite, as shown in a study from 2004 that turned into a long-lasting benchmark on implicit bias. The study also found that for every inch above six feet fall, CEOs received about an additional $790 a year. And millennials have often been left at the altar for perceived attitudes they may not even have, including the fact that they may well leave the job at the altar. Circular logic, meet backasswards recruiting strategies. Well played.
It’s been hypothesized that we simply tend to go for what’s familiar (I don’t need to open that particular hornet’s nest, do I?) Apparently we are still working from an ancient survival reflex, in which we take only moments to size up whether or not a stranger was about to help us slay a mammoth or lob a rock at our head and steal our cave. It’s like using our prehistoric reptile brains to measure talent. Despite honorable intentions (or not) we are still trapped in that same set of misassumptions, making complicated, weighty hiring decisions based on criteria as subjective as height, weight, age, hair color, color, gender, and physical condition and basic good looks.
Is it really that complicated? No, not with a little more effort. Here are 5 ways to overcome it:
- Stop doing it.It is undoubtedly part of our own set of unconscious bias that certain instances of discrimination infuriate us to the point of deciding the offendermust be guilty. Again, to cite Yahoo: Anderson’s suit is yet another sore spot in a troubled phase of a great big company that galls us on a couple of levels. First: we all hate performance reviews, and second: the sheer volume of employees fired as a result of these reviews smacks of manipulation and unfair tactics. We know it’s wrong. We can’t pretend to leave that kind of ethical certainty outside the entrance to our own workplaces.
- Look in the mirror. If we can’t simply reflexively undo bias, then at least we can drop the act and accept that it happens. Point to the ancestral reasons and it becomes like our pinky toe: just a part of our makeup that’s easy enough to ignore. Without finger pointing, without a public dressing down, enlist colleagues and educate hiring teams. Take a deep dive into hiring practices and create some metrics. The first part of healing is acknowledging the problem. Among the tools: an IAT test (Implicit Association Test) that measures the strength of associations between concepts and evaluations; or a job listing booster that also words to decode hidden bias, such as Textio.
- Follow the money.Address the advantages of a diverse workforce in terms of proven ROI and competitiveness. Companies with a multifaceted, multigenerational workforce have been found to be more competitive, better able to serve their customers, and more able to shine in terms of employer brand, thereby increasing the talent available. Diversity has also been shown to drive innovation and be better equipped for dealing with the global marketplace. Bringing older professionals back into the workforce has its own benefits. On the flip side, settlements do not come cheap. Consider PMT Corp, ordered to pay over $1 million to settle a suit that it discriminated against job applicants based on age (over 40) and gender (female).
- Put down carpeting.This is a metaphor: wherever you find bias sticking to your hiring process, fix it. Consider the fixes of thehiring practices of symphony orchestras. Notoriously short on women in the 1970s (the top five U.S. orchestras were less than 5% women) orchestras began holding blind auditions behind screens resulting in at least 25% women being hired. The Boston Symphony Orchestra actually added carpeting to muffle the sound of high heels clicking during blind auditions. And as more women comprised orchestras, more women candidates applied.
- Forget the carpeting, and forget us, too. The story of the orchestras is a common trope in this discussion. An unsettling recent piece proposes taking humans out of the equation entirely— and brought up the orchestras as an argument. I’d counter that we were the ones who put down the carpeting, after all. But if indeed we are biologically hardwired to be biased, then perhaps the solution is simply to do away with the biology in the hiring process. I may not agree with this — I like to think we’re better than that. But if we have to shake the tree to get to better apples, it may be worth it.
A version of this was first posted on Forbes.