Are Organizations Becoming Less Biased?

I’ve written quite a bit about bias in this blog. It is an important topic to me because I believe that people in HR and industrial psychology can be gatekeepers to a more fair society while improving organizational performance. Of course, bias in employment is merely an extension of what happens in the greater society. One of the assumptions about bias is that it is fairly stable so we have to almost trick people into being fair.

However, this study has some better news. Their analysis indicates that over a 20 year period bias against skin color and sexual orientation have been reduced. However, bias against weight has increased. Attitudes towards age and disability have stayed the same. Strangely, gender bias is not addressed.

The study raises many interesting questions about whether these changes are being experienced across demographic groups or only primarily within specific ones. However, it does provide some questions for HR practices, such as:

  • What steps can we take to reduce bias in hiring based on weight? Phone interviews instead of live ones?
  • Do we need to change our anti-discrimination training to focus more on weight and less on other issues?

The data does seem to point to those characteristics that we perceive as choices (being overweight) as having stronger biases than those that we have always perceived as innate (skin color) and those that the culture is now thinking of as such (sexual orientation).

Each organization can see where its implicit bias “blind spots” are by analyzing its hiring and promotional data. I understand that this can lead to some unkind truths. But, it will also allow for focus on areas where bias can be reduced.

Reducing Bias Through Structure

Finding examples of racial or gender bias in hiring or job evaluations is not hard.  The latest comes from a survey of lawyers.  My sense is that the results did not come from a random sample of attorneys, so I would not quote the group differences as gospel.  The authors recommended some specific ways that law firms and companies that hire lawyers can correct the bias in their HR processes.  There were two things I took from the study:

  • Many, but not all, of the recommendations came from a solid research base. It was good to see that their hiring suggestions included behaviorally based interviews, skills based assessments, and using behavioral definitions of culture.  Each of these suggestions introduces objectively and structure into the hiring process.
  • Given that attorneys have either brought employment lawsuits or have had to defend companies against them since 1964, did it really take this long to come up with some hiring process recommendations?

My consulting experience tells me that people who hire for professional jobs seem to think there is more magic and intuition in selection than those who staff for other types of positions.  This is especially true when hiring for a job they used to have.  They could not be more wrong.  Every job has a set of critical skills and abilities required to do it well.  It is possible to objectively measure these in candidates.  Doing so will likely reduce bias.

Eliminating Subtle Age Bias

Since age bias is something that could affect nearly all HR professionals, I am surprised that it does not get more attention. But, with the average age of employees in the U.S. going up (see here) and companies likely to recruit more older workers due to the unemployment rate being near recent lows, we are likely to see more attention paid to it, particularly in the technology field.

As with most bias, it can be introduced in a subtle way. For example, the term “digital native” describes those born roughly after 1990 that have had current technology (internet, smart phones, etc) pretty much their whole lives. A quick Indeed.com search shows many jobs where “digital native” is part of the description. Put another way, those older than 35ish should think twice before applying. Similarly, there is a whole literature (this article is an example) on how gender loaded terms in job postings affect who will respond to them.

Now, I get that you are advertising for tech jobs you are looking for employees who are completely comfortable in a digital environment and communicating with others who are. But, those are behaviors that can be assessed for with valid pre-employment tests without having to make assumptions about a person’s age.

And that is really the point about implicit bias—we make assumptions about groups without understanding people as individuals. We face a challenge in employee selection of creating processes that treat everyone fairly, but at the same time learn about them as individuals. It is a challenging needle to thread, but one that our businesses depend on us to do well. Using a combination of unbiased language and valid pre-employment tools can help us get there.

Or, if you would rather beat them than join them, you can open an art gallery that only focuses on artists ages 60 and older.

Blind Hiring

I wrote a few weeks ago about Intel’s drive to diversify its workforce. Regular readers know that I write about bias occasionally. It’s good that the topic makes it to the mainstream media occasionally when not related to a lawsuit.

The article talks about techniques to reduce bias. Some are old (truly blind auditions for musicians) and other are new, such as software that provides only the relevant hiring info without showing a person’s name, school attended, or other information that would potentially bias the hiring manager. This puts a premium on validated tests, which I like. Though, I’m sure that there are some readers who would argue that some of these tests are biased as well, but that’s a topic for another post.

This is all well and good, but as any logistics or customer service person will tell you, it’s the last mile that really matters. I can have as diverse of a candidate pool as I want, but if there is bias in the interviewing process, I will be rejecting qualified candidates for non-valid reasons. So, what’s a hiring manager to do?

First, give less weight to the interview and/or make it more valid. Why this barely better than a coin-flip technique makes or breaks a hiring decision when proven and validated techniques are shoved the side is beyond me. OK—I get it. People want to feel in control and have buy-in to the hiring process. But, can we at least be more rational about it? Interview scores should be combined with other data (with appropriate weighting) and the overall score should be used to make hiring decisions, not the one unreliable data point.

Second, why not blind interviewing? Hear me out. How many jobs really require someone to think on their feet and provide oral answers to complex questions? Sure, there are some (sales, for instance), but not that many. Why not have candidates submit written answers to interview questions? The scoring would be more reliable (evaluating grammar/spelling could be optional for jobs where it’s not critical), and accents, gender, and skin color would be taken out of the equation. Think about it.

Lastly, a diverse workforce is a result of a valid and inclusive selection process. When companies approach it the other way (working backwards from hiring goals by demographic group), they miss the point. Diversity isn’t about filling buckets. It’s about providing equal opportunity every step of the way when hiring.

For more information on valid pre-employment testing hiring practices, contact Warren Bobrow.

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