Bias in the Workplace

By Scott McMillan 

Black History Month seems to be a good time to start a conversation about bias in the workplace.  

My belief and experiences suggest that Talent Decisions in companies are still heavily informed by management opinion.  This, by definition, creates bias in decision making allowing judgement to outweigh data which in turn leads to poor business outcomes. Companies talk about the ‘War for Talent’ yet continue to make bad hiring decisions and disenfranchise their best employees through inconsistent decision making and management by instinct

In the Gartner study of Top 5 Priorities for HR Leaders in 2021, 49% of HR Leaders are saying “Our leadership bench is not diverse.”  And 88% felt their organization had not been effective at increasing diverse representation. Don’t you find this shocking??? I do.  

There are many fantastic resources available to explain Unconscious Bias, what it is and how it happens. There are also many in-depth studies on the importance of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, the impact this has on culture and overall business performance. I am not going to try and contribute more to the research on this topic – there are many more knowledgeable people out there. My interest is this, if we know that bias happens, we know why it happens and if we all agree it is a bad thing, how do we change our talent practices to reduce bias in Decision Making and further, how do we use Assessment technologies and data to help with this?  Here are my six top tips to reduce bias in Talent Decisions. 

  1. Consistent process 

Talent Management processes need to be clearly documented, understood by all participants, transparent and measurable. Then they need to be consistently and rigorously applied. A great example is always compensation decisions. Can you explain to everyone impacted why you made certain decisions and be totally transparent to everyone impacted in a way which is subject to scrutiny? How do you use data in these processes to inform decisions? When it comes to role-based decisions (Hiring, Promotion, Mobility, HIPO identification), how is assessment used in these processes. Are you assessing the individual against the requirements of the role using data? If not, then why not?  

  1. Job Descriptions and Role descriptions without bias 

One of my favorite books on the topic of bias is What Works: Gender Equality by Design, written by Iris Bohnet. “Our minds are stubborn beasts that are hard to change, but it’s not hard to de-bias the application process” she says “The idea of the book and of my research is to say that it’s easier to de-bias organizations’ practices and procedures than to de-bias mindsets. To start with, job ads are super-low-hanging fruit.”  Most Job Descriptions and Role descriptions are heavily male oriented filled with gendered language. Research shows that male oriented descriptions will dissuade women from applying for jobs externally and internally. There are a few products which will review your Job / Role description and propose gender neutrally wording. This has been shown to make job ads more compelling to people and increase the likelihood of people applying who are a close fit for the role and will qualify for an assessment.  

  1. Blind assessment 

A talent process which considers any demographic characteristics at the start will promote bias. This can never be totally eliminated, but how and when you are exposed to the demographic information in the process will make a difference.  Short-listing of external candidates should happen blind. Assessment technologies used at the start of the process will give you a qualified short list of candidates based on suitability for the role before any human intervention. I would suggest the same happens for promotions and internal mobility. Using technology to assess suitability to a promotion role as a first step to create a short list of promotion candidates will reduce bias. 

  1. Structured, competency-based interviews. 

Congratulations. The candidate or employee in front of you has been through a consistent, clear and transparent process, they applied to a gender-neutral job / role and their suitability has been assessed such that they are a clear and viable candidate. Don’t blow it now.  

A competency-based interview is different from an unstructured interview. The aim of competency-based interviews is to reveal the skills, knowledge and behaviors a candidate will bring to a job or an employee will bring to a new role. Candidates are asked to provide examples of how they have used certain skills and behaviors in the past and what the outcomes have been. This is built on the premise that past behavior and results is the best indicator of future performance – not your instinct. You will have a pre-set list of questions, with each targeting a skill or competency required for the role. In response, they will describe a situation where they have used that skill, explain the action they took and talk about the outcome. You will then mark your response against predetermined criteria. Clear, consistent and transparent.  

  1. Set targets.  

This step is controversial but has been proven to work. Setting targets for diversity is simple to do, difficult to achieve and sometimes harder to communicate. Surely setting targets to skew outcomes is not fair – but not setting targets has already proven to be unfair. You need to be clear on the objective, the target, how to communicate and the consequences of not hitting the target. The targets need to be authentic and guided by your Talent Goals. Do not bother to set a diversity target if the outcome does not matter – it has to matter. To those people who have targets in their personal goals, it has to be clear how attainment / failure will impact their overall performance. If it is added as an afterthought, then expect it to be treated this way. 

  1. Training and awareness.  

This last but crucial step is where it all hangs together. There is a lot of ground to cover here and the messaging needs to be consistent. Clear communication of the strategy, goals and approach needs to be clear to employees, managers and candidates. For managers there is a lot to take in. The purpose of assessments needs to be a start and then training in the use of the Assessment technology needs to be extensive. It is really critical that managers know how to use the product, how to interpret the data, how to use in formulating their decisions and then how to communicate this back to the candidate or employee.   

The move from unstructured to structured, opinion to data, instinct to insights is a big change for anyone. The understanding of bias needs to become an organizational dialogue. It will take time for people to really change their behavior which is why it needs infrastructure to support the change.  

So, I share my opinion, observations and experiences. I am really interested in your opinion to help advance all our knowledge and contribute to this topic. We would love to hear you feedback on the following: 

Let’s start the conversation.