Sometimes, we put on blinders. Because of the way we live, we think we’re fine — that we don’t have a problem with women, people of color, or members of the LGBTQIA community. We think of ourselves as nice people just going to work and doing our jobs — just like Todd, a department manager I once coached.
In fact, I’ve coached many managers and leaders who feel diversity and inclusion (D&I) has no bearing on their office culture or their organization’s ability to innovate and succeed. As such, they pay little, if any, attention to D&I when hiring and developing company policies and procedures.
In one instance during a group coaching session I once ran, Todd said that he never considered race, gender, or any other aspect of diversity when hiring. “I just hire the best person for the job,” he emphatically declared.
Moments earlier, a colleague from outside his department had just revealed that Todd’s team was known as the “golden country club” for its lack of diversity and boys’ club vibe. This was not news to Todd — he was well aware of his group’s reputation. In addition, he had heard others outside the department refer to his team as the “workplace fraternity.” Now that he had the floor, he was explaining just how the demographics and culture of his team had come about and why they weren’t an issue.
Just then, a newer member of Todd’s team, Michael, spoke up. He shared that his wife had challenged him recently, stating that he was oblivious to the fact that all of his direct reports were white, heterosexual males between the ages of 30 and 60 — just like him. Not only were all of Michael’s direct reports members of that demographic, but the entire department was homogeneous and had been that way for decades. Unlike Todd, Michael was beginning to see why this was an issue.
After the session, Michael approached me to request one-on-one coaching. He said that “things are pretty good around here,” but after his wife’s comment, he couldn’t just maintain the status quo. She had been experiencing blatant gender discrimination at work herself, and he was deeply bothered by the realization that his team dynamics were strikingly similar to the ones at his wife’s organization. After hearing about her experience, Michael had begun to understand how problematic it was. He was visibly emotional when he said,”I had to look my wife in the eye and admit that I’ve been contributing to the system that is causing her so much distress.”
Michael wanted to explore ways to bring more diversity into the department, but he was apprehensive about how shaking things up would be received by his peers. Todd’s resistance to acknowledging that his department had any issues was a perfect example.
There are several important takeaways from this story:
- Organizations need to open their eyes and ears to the ways in which subtle discrimination and unconscious bias manifest themselves in the workplace. In this case, Todd didn’t think he was exclusionary because he “doesn’t see differences,” but the makeup of his department told a very different story.
- Sometimes we have to voice the bad to get to the good, and that requires creating a space where people feel comfortable sharing things they may not be proud of. Despite the current flaws in his department’s culture, Michael at least felt comfortable sharing his concerns with his peers. Later, coaching provided him a safe space in which to discuss the circumstances one on one, which opened the doors for positive change at his organization.
- We must also call out the ﬂawed thinking that hinders progress. If the Todd in our organization says,”I just hire the best person for the job,” we should respond, “Great, that is exactly what we all want to do throughout our organization. Let’s discuss how increasing diversity helps us ensure that we acquire and retain top talent.” The unspoken truth in Todd’s statement is that some leaders feel that hiring with a diversity lens means settling for less than “the best.” That myth needs to be challenged and corrected with awareness and coaching to get to the source of the fallacy.
What Resumes Reveal About Bias
Unfortunately, unfair and unconsciously biased judgments can take their toll even before applicants step through an organization’s door for a job interview. Data supports the reality that prejudice and bias are evident from the moment that minorities submit their resumes.
Research conducted in 2016 by Katherine A. DeCelles, then a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, along with several colleagues uncovered the fact that prejudice is hardwired into the applicant-selection process. When the study’s 1,600 fictitious minority applicants submitted resumes that whitewashed or disguised their race, they received a much higher percentage of responses from potential employers (25 percent versus 10 percent). Perhaps worse, employers who appeared diversity-friendly (equal-opportunity pledges were posted on their websites) were no less likely to discriminate and still gave preferential treatment to resumes of people with white-sounding names.
“It’s time,” noted DeCelles, “for employers to acknowledge that bias is hardwired into the hiring system, and prejudice is clouding the screening of qualified applicants.”
Why do employers prefer candidates who seem white? In her TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie offered an answer. Adichie spoke about prejudice and bias as stemming from a single, widely propagated story about any given group, and the “single story” that companies hear about minority candidates is that they will not be “a good ﬁt.” And so, these candidates are penalized for a stereotypical narrative that probably has nothing to do with them.
Despite the plethora of trainings in unconscious bias and cultural competence available to hiring managers and talent acquisition, HR, and recruitment teams, we still see employment discrimination running rampant in organizations. But as we’ve established, instruction on its own rarely sticks, because it doesn’t evoke any real investment on the part of the trainee. This is why I prefer the coaching approach to inclusion, which engages participants with powerful, emotion-provoking questions such as these:
- What types of people relate best to you?
- What types of people do you prefer to interact with?
- What role does culture play when you interpret applicant behaviors?
Asking these questions requires people to consider their own preferences — and potentially the prejudices and biases attached to those preferences. When managers and hiring professionals become aware of their tendencies to choose candidates who seem to be like them, they can actively take steps to counter those inclinations.
Another powerful question that recruiting and hiring professionals can reflect on to become intentional about challenging bias in themselves and others is, “Does the applicant remind me of someone I know?” This question requires people to explore whether an outside connection is unfairly swaying their perspective on a candidate. Those who strike a hiring manager as more familiar and who evoke positive associations will receive an advantage, while those who seem foreign to them or rouse negative comparisons — no matter how arbitrary — are far less likely to be hired. Sometimes, people charged with hiring are also triggered by particular aspects of a candidate’s appearance that are connected to their biases. I’ve coached clients triggered by traits such as dreadlocks, tattoos, and heavy accents.
It is important to state that biases and triggers in and of themselves are not the problem. We all have biases and we are all triggered on occasion. Our efficiency and even our survival depend on possessing these mechanisms for decision-making. However, we must recognize them for what they are.
Biases represent our interpretations of positive and negative stereotypes and experiences; they are not universal truths. In the case of recruiting and hiring practices, these cognitive shortcuts often result in ﬂawed judgment and, as the data demonstrates, unfair hiring decisions. Mastering the delicate balance of making generalizations that protect us while challenging bias and its potential to cloud our judgment is not an easy task, but it is possible — and necessary.
Finally, taking a peek into the future, we will have to keep an eye on technological advances. Those who think artificial intelligence (AI) will remove bias from the hiring process should know there is actually growing concern regarding bias in AI across most business functions, including recruiting and hiring. While AI offers promise for predictive analysis, it also has blind spots that can disproportionately affect women and minorities. After all, human inputs are at the base of AI, and if those inputs contain bias, so will the AI.
“The ﬁeld really has woken up, and you are seeing some of the best computer scientists, often in concert with social scientists, writing great papers on it,” says University of Washington Computer Science Professor Dan Weld. “There has been a real call to arms.”
We can’t coach computers, but at least we can coach computer programmers!
La’Wana Harris is a certified diversity executive and an International Coach Federation credentialed coach who has created diversity and inclusion awareness programs, cultural competence programs, and overall integrated management solutions.