Blindfolding Your Bias: How to Make Diversity an HR Staple

Diversity—it’s a key to good business. Whether you’re a tech firm, a hotel, or a hospital, diverse employees can only bring good things to your company. A variety of contributors will offer different perspectives, leading to more creativity and more innovation.

Studies show more diverse teams outperform non-diverse teams by 35 percent and are more innovative than homogenous teams. Increased diversity in the workplace not only helps create a more inclusive and creative work environment, it also helps achieve business goals.

So, with all these benefits, why is diversity something we strive for instead of a staple of business? Researchers say it’s our unconscious bias—that innate feeling you get which makes you for or against someone based on a specific characteristic. It’s natural, but becomes a problem when we let it influence our interviewing, or hiring, or day-to-day work.

A number of studies provide a heap of evidence for the presence of unconscious bias in hiring. In a study from the University of Chicago on racial bias in résumé screening, identical résumés were sent to a variety of companies in Boston and Chicago. The results: résumés with domestic or white-sounding names were called back more often than the résumés with foreign or black-sounding names. Some job applicants who are aware of this prejudice are even changing their names to sound more ‘Anglo-Saxon.’

Increase Awareness

Everyone has unconscious bias, and it doesn’t mean we’re all bad people. The only way to begin fixing the harmful effects our biases cause is to become aware of the biases themselves. Project Implicit, a research program started in 1998 by three scientists to study thoughts and feelings which we do not control, aims to raise the awareness of implicit bias.

With a multitude of tests available online, the non-profit informs people of their hidden bias and collects data which is made available to other researchers. Their tests measure several biases, from seeing people with disabilities as weaker to viewing attractive people as more competent. “We want to give people the opportunity to learn about their own unconscious biases so they can try to overcome them if they want to,” said Kate Ratliff, executive director at Project Implicit.  

And remember, we can’t completely remove our biases—it’s not how our brain works, says Neal Goodman, Ph.D., president of Global Dynamics, Inc. “It’s part of our socialization and our upbringing,” he says. Goodman’s company is a global provider of training programs and consulting for organizations looking for diversity and cross-cultural competence. The key, he says, is to first recognize our biases and start taking measures to dismantle them.

“In the end, if you’re conscientious of the bias and say, ‘I’m not going to let that impact me and I’m going to look at the quality of the person and their performance,’ then you can make the best decision,” Goodman said. 

Sometimes, since bias is human nature, it is easiest to take a swing at removing all opportunity for bias. Practices like omitting names or graduation dates from résumés during the review process—implemented by a number of companies—will secure more of an unbiased operation.

Many hiring managers today are taking a cue from orchestra audition changes implemented in the 1970’s and 1980’s. At the time, orchestras were mostly made up of male musicians, so a few orchestras began to conduct blind auditions—where the musician performed behind a screen—which forced the casting directors to rely solely on what they heard. Before these auditions, female musicians made up 5 percent of the top five orchestras, but by the turn of the century, that number increased to 25 percent. 

Today, hiring managers are similarly stripping résumés of personal details so they’re only left with skills and experiences. However, Goodman points out that even subtle aspects of a résumé can tip off our unconscious bias. For instance, if one résumé features the president of an LGBT alliance and the other spotlights the leader of a conservative club for students, there’s the potential to tip a manager’s bias one way or another. “They can’t help it,” says Goodman. 


If You Can’t Beat It, Acknowledge It

Goodman’s favorite part of the unconscious bias training his company provides is the first minute of a simulation. He makes everyone in the audience hate him, in under a minute. “Without saying a word people think I am a sexist, elitist bigot, when I am actually the opposite,” he said. 

Exactly what he does is a trade secret, but he plays on the group’s unconscious bias. While they quickly form an opinion of him, he is demonstrating the very thing holding them back from diversity. And then comes processing: why are you feeling that way, and what assumptions are you making?

“You don’t know what you don’t know, so there’s no reason why they should understand it,” Goodman said. “You have to make them aware that there is something going on in their brains that leads us to make assumptions that could be 180 degrees wrong.”

It’s a fact—we find comfort in sameness. If you are a hiring manager who attended Harvard, and you interview a candidate who also attended Harvard, a bond will inevitably form over your common ground. Goodman emphasizes that it’s fine to have these similarities and it’s even okay to bond over them, but when it comes to making the final decision, those biases need to be far away.

Leave Your Bias Outside

Removing bias in résumé screening can be simple, but the interview is where combating bias definitely becomes more active. An interviewer makes most hiring mistakes in the first 30 minutes, Lou Adler writes in his book, Hire With Your Head. It’s a problem of the first impression—it only takes seven seconds for a person to make one. In the time it takes to shake someone’s hand, you’ve already developed a number of assumptions about them. 

While business today puts an emphasis on immediacy more than ever before, the hiring process needs to slow down. Our bias becomes detrimental to business when we make quick deductions—gut reactions—and when we have no facts to back up our assessment of a candidate. “Everyone believes they’re a really great judge of talent,” says Laura Mather, founder of Unitive, a startup that provides tools to combat unconscious bias in job descriptions, résumé screening, and interviews. “Everyone believes they have what I call the golden gut, but it turns out, 95 percent of us do not.”

But it’s only when you really take the time to have a thoughtful conversation with an applicant, review the person’s entire application, re-review all interview answers, and also take time to double-check your own biases that you can actually make a decision that could be considered impartial.

Not surprisingly, diversity can lead to more diversity. Goodman suggests using a diverse interview panel to make the hiring process fairer. Each person adds a new perspective on a candidate and they can keep each other’s biases in check.

A standardized list of questions can simplify an interview process and leave less room for bias as well. A biased interview might focus on a particular characteristic or topic—positively or negatively—instead of covering all aspects of a candidate’s qualifications. But with no influence from bias on the interviewer’s questions, everyone can benefit from an equal playing field.

At GL Group—the family-run, parent company to several book distributors—interviewers receive a set of questions before they meet with candidates. “We try to give all candidates the same landscape,” said director of human resources, Lisa Whealon. “We help the leader doing those interviews to truly be able to value candidate A versus candidate B versus candidate C.”  Without making a wholehearted effort, bias simply gets the better of us.  

Keep Diversity Active

The push towards a more diverse workplace doesn’t end with hiring. Unconscious bias is also present—and hurting diversity—in day-to-day work life. From project planning to team building, bringing together diverse points of view for any aspect of business will make the initiative more effective.

The Royal Bank of Canada has an internal social media platform where employees can join communities and talk about these hidden biases. The site, RBC Connect, has information and resources pertaining to diversity and inclusion. The group has created a variety of communities on the site, including Women@RBC and LGBT@RBC.

The more commonplace talking about unconscious bias becomes, the closer we get to keeping it out of decision-making. “I like that people are becoming aware of those biases,” Mather of Unitive said. “I like that they are gaining vocabulary so that it becomes accepted and encouraged to talk about these things.”

The GL Group interjects the conversation of diversity into every aspect of the workplace. Not only is the conversation encouraged, but, no matter the circumstance, Whealon puts diversity at the forefront. “We’re really supportive of all of our teams being involved in different committees,” Whealon said.

Each year, GL Group puts on a “Get Involved Fair” where its 200 employees are encouraged to join one of the companies’ committees. They include Wellness, Volunteerism, and Book Club as well as many others that contribute to shaping the workplace environment at GL Group. Whealon finds that diverse groups lead to the best results.

Whealon also encourages project leaders to go out into the business when choosing project members instead of choosing the same type of people every time. “This ensures that we are addressing our customers’ needs at all levels,” Whealon said. “And that our teams are able to work with different people within the organization.”  

Sometimes, a company can fill every diversity quota imaginable, and still not reap the benefits which should come along with their variance. It’s due to a lack of inclusion. “You have to have people that feel they can make a contribution, that want to make a contribution,” Goodman said. “Diversity is the reality and inclusion is the choice.”

Unconscious bias, if unchecked, can affect all aspects of work life. And most of the time, we have no idea it’s happening. But just becoming aware of our bias is a big step in the direction towards a diverse company—where varied points-of-view and diversified backgrounds lead to better business. 

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