You Don’t Mean To Be Biased

After a year that placed a spotlight on racially charged incidents in Ferguson and New York, bias — racial and otherwise — has become a prominent issue. Empirical research over the last few years has shown that bias still does occur, including within the workplace.

Earlier this month, New York Times columnist and Harvard economics professor Sendhil Mullainathan compiled research that demonstrates how bias seeps into the hiring process. One study, conducted in 2009, sent people with identical resumes and similar interview training to apply for low-wage jobs — African-American applicants with no criminal record were offered jobs at a rate as low as white applicants who had criminal records.

Even December's jobs report, which as a whole posted positive employment increases, reveals a gap among employee demographics. While the unemployment rate for white workers has declined to 6 percent, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that more than 8 percent of Hispanic and Latino members of the workforce are unemployed, as well as nearly 12 percent of black workers.

This type of disparity results from various factors including differing levels of access to quality education, but given the studies conducted by Mullainathan and others, it is clear discrimination is also a component.

Bias, even when it is unconscious or unintentional, can often shape the decisions a person makes, including in the hiring process, said Linda Stokes, president and CEO of PRISM International, a diversity and inclusion consulting and training firm.

“Bias has become a part of who we all are and our preferences for different kinds of people and different skills and abilities and working styles and speaking styles,” Stokes said. “We just want to make sure that we are not disadvantaging people who may not fit our preferences but who can do the job very well.”

Stokes said several methods can be adopted to keep individual biases from influencing the hiring process, including arranging for candidates to be interviewed by a panel of individuals representing various dimensions of diversity and who have received diversity and inclusion training. Being able to tell the difference between the actual requirements for a position vs. personal preferences can also help ensure that bias is kept out of the recruiting process.

Additionally, Stokes said implicit associations tests, such as the one offered by Harvard, can help people identify their biases and in turn work to limit their effects.

Janet Pope, a diversity and inclusion leader at consulting firm Capgemini, said her firm runs a 90-minute virtual session to educate company leaders about unconscious bias.

“The session discusses unconscious bias and how to mitigate in a number of ways, hiring and otherwise,” Pope said.

Achieving diverse representation in the workforce is not just about preventing discrimination — it is also about making sure minority candidates feel comfortable and welcomed throughout the recruiting process. Jennifer Brown, founder and CEO of workplace consulting firm Jennifer Brown Consulting, said diversity among the people involved in hiring a potential employee not only helps prevent bias, but also reassures candidates about the kind of community they would find if they accepted the job.

“If I’m a recruit and I’m going through the process of being recruited and I never see someone that looks like me or that shares my identity at any point through the recruitment process, I’m less likely to accept the job,” Brown said.

At Capgemini, Pope said recruiters reach out to special interest groups on college campuses to ensure that minority students are aware of employment opportunities at their firm and in the industry in general.

“We’re building pipelines to support diversity in the future,” Pope said.

Brown said implementing employee resource groups and other diversity and inclusion efforts can help ensure that, once hired, minority candidates stay with the company.

“Companies need to reflect in their employee population the external world that they’re doing business with,” Brown said. “Being able to hire and retain a diverse workforce … it’s absolutely critical.”