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10 Ways to Mitigate Bias in Your Company’s Decision Making

If your company is like most, you’re likely struggling with workplace discrimination, even if you don’t know it. Equity gaps remain a pernicious problem in the U.S., particularly for women and people of color, who, on average, earn less and are under-promoted compared to their white or male counterparts. And though federal law has prohibited workplace discrimination for more than fifty years, those gaps don’t appear to be closing anytime soon. The problem, as I explain in recent research, is that the law incentivizes managers and other leaders in the company to address disparities too late in the game.

Compliance measures focus on the biggest personnel decisions a manager makes — who gets the promotion, who gets the biggest bonus — while overlooking all the smaller decisions that affect employee performance towards those metrics over time. Gender-based disparities in sales performance might be traced back to managerial distribution of leads, access to coaching and feedback, or opportunities to get in front of existing clients. Likewise, differences in experience and skill level at the time a promotion is made may have resulted from informal managerial decisions early on about who gets a high-profile assignment, or another chance after a big mistake.

The key to addressing these disparities may be from an unlikely source: social science research on racial bias in school discipline. My colleagues at the University of Oregon, who have spent years studying the small, everyday decisions that produce disparities over time — what they call vulnerable decision points — in schools, found that school leaders tend to discipline black students more than white students for subjective infractions (e.g. disrespect) than objective ones (e.g. fighting). Thus, while fighting may be the more serious event, it is actually the accumulation of disparities in the more frequent, and lower-level incidents that lead to major racial disparities in school discipline.

The key to breaking this disparity, then, both in the classroom and in the workplace, is to eliminate the earliest opportunities for discrimination. Here are some approaches to try:

Work backwards from pay, promotion, and performance criteria. If you already have well-defined criteria, consult with managers to break them into subparts. What are the steps an employee needs to complete to achieve those objectives? What skills, knowledge, and experience do they need? Then figure out which components are most important, and whether all employees have equal access.

Look for on ramps and off ramps in career trajectories. Some professions are path dependent, where early judgments about performance determine access to future opportunities. In those situations, scrutinize opportunity distribution at that initial stage to assess whether everyone has a chance to make it into the fast lane. It’s also worth looking for ramps available to some employees but not others — like whether managers are looking for “superstar” potential, or give stragglers more time to prove themselves.

Try focus groups and case studies. Another source of useful information is employees themselves — and their managers. They may know about important opportunities they received that others may have missed. You may also want to gather data on promising employees whose careers went sideways, through exit interviews, and even past discrimination complaints.

Identify hidden decision-makers. Some employees who distribute scarce opportunities may not even be on your radar. For example, in corporate law firms, mid-level and senior associates can be the primary decision-makers in how work is distributed to junior lawyers. But these lawyers rarely receive management training, and their decision-making isn’t scrutinized.

Reveal hidden decisions. Managers may not even recognize some of their most important decisions as such. A manager might unconsciously decide to take risks on employees who are similar to them or similar to successful employees in the past, without realizing other employees missed out on the chance.

Help employees take charge of their careers. Sometimes, disparities arise — or are exacerbated — because employees don’t know which opportunities are important. A newly minted investment banker who is a first-generation college graduate will need to know what to focus on if she has any hope of competing with someone whose parents were bankers. Rather than expecting new employees to figure it out on their own, provide them with explicit guidance on what they’ll need to accomplish in five or ten years.

Add rigor to subjective decisions. Subjective judgments are the most vulnerable to implicit bias. The same goes for judgments under time pressure, and in ambiguous situations. Encourage managers to adopt their own objective and behavior-based standards for when they will or won’t take risks, excuse bad behavior, or recognize employee potential.

Provide data. When managers make decisions in an ad hoc way, they may not be aware of the cumulative effect of those decisions. If access to new client accounts is turning out to be a barrier to advancement, provide managers with regular reports on who is receiving the new accounts, so they can rebalance going forward.

Offer resources. Sometimes, managers might like to distribute important opportunities more widely, but don’t have the time or energy to do so. This is where HR can help. If employees need training on business development, offer it to everyone who is interested, rather than relying on managers to provide it informally.

Addressing bias in the workplace is like tackling any other complex business challenge — it demands good data, engagement at the ground level, and creative problem solving. Ultimately, by identifying the vulnerable decision points in your personnel systems, you can help all employees achieve their full potential.


Elizabeth Tippett is an Associate Professor at the University of Oregon School of Law. She researches employment practices and business ethics.

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How to Reduce Personal Bias When Hiring

When it comes to hiring diverse candidates, good intentions do not necessarily lead to good results. I once met a talent acquisition leader at a large global technology company who had changed the organization’s hiring process in multiple ways to bring in more diverse candidates but was frustrated by the lack of progress. Internal analyses showed that even though the company had interviewed a higher number of non-white candidates in preliminary rounds, their final hires were still overwhelmingly white.

I’ve seen this same situation play out in multiple organizations and industries and often it’s because well-intentioned hiring managers end up inadvertently weeding out qualified candidates from underestimated backgrounds because of unconscious bias.

Changes in process and diversity initiatives alone are not going to remedy the lack of equal representation in companies. Individual managers who are often making the final hiring decisions need to address their own bias.

But how? In my experience, there are several things managers can do.

Before taking any steps, however, it’s important to accept that no one is pre-loaded with inclusive behavior; we are, in fact, biologically hardwired to align with people like us and reject those whom we consider different.

Undoing these behaviors requires moving from a fixed mindset — the belief that we’re already doing the best we possibly can to build diverse teams — to one of openness and growth, where we can deeply understand, challenge, and confront our personal biases.

Here are the specific strategies I recommend.

Accept that you have biases, especially affinity bias

Even if you head up your organization’s diversity committee, even if you are from an underrepresented community, you have biases that impact your professional decisions, especially hiring. Affinity bias — having a more favorable opinion of someone like us — is one of the most common. In hiring this often means referring or selecting a candidate who shares our same race or gender, or who went to the same school, speaks the same language, or reminds us of our younger selves.

Microsoft’s head of global talent acquisition, Chuck Edward, told me that affinity bias is widespread in hiring and often leads people to seek out, and hire, candidates who “look, act, and operate” like them. He admits falling into this trap himself. “I’ve had to be very careful to address it head on,” he says.

Create a personal learning list

Spend time reading and learning about the experience of underrepresented communities at work. Among the books I recommend are So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, and What Works by Iris Bohnet, which was recommended to me by Michelle Gadsen-Williams, a managing director and the North America lead for inclusion and diversity at Accenture. I’ve found Harvard Business Review’s “Women at Work” podcast to be an excellent resource as well.

Seek out resources that you wouldn’t normally come across and look for books and articles from underrepresented communities. In the U.S., that might include books that include the perspectives of immigrants, people with disabilities, and native American and indigenous communities.

Not only will it help you uncover the biases you’re bringing to hiring decisions, it will also equip you with the framework and language to recognize, and possibly call out, bias in your company’s processes.

 

Ask: “Where is, or could, bias show up in this decision?”

One team I work with had hiring managers who would often flippantly say phrases like: “We should hire this person. I could easily see myself having beers with them after work.” Or “This candidate is qualified, but really isn’t a cultural fit.”

These comments, laden with unconscious bias, would go unchecked. When the leadership team, which was entirely male and white, asked for my help in creating guidelines to reduce bias in the hiring processes, I suggested they start candidate debrief meetings by asking, “Where could unconscious bias show up in our decisions today?” This intervention, along with other process changes, led the team to hire two women leaders.

By explicitly acknowledging that we all have unconscious biases and creating a space to call them out, there’s an opportunity to hold ourselves and each other accountable.

Reduce the influence of your peers’ opinions on your hiring decisions

In the past, Microsoft would allow hiring managers to see each other’s feedback on a candidate, before it was their turn to interview them. “Everybody on the interview loop could see what others were saying — the words that were used, what was said about a candidate — before interviewing them,” says Edward. “It’s real clear how that could lead to biases and being influenced by someone else’s views.”

Recently, Microsoft made the feedback loop private — a hiring manager can’t log in to the tool and see their colleagues’ feedback until they’ve entered their own assessment of a candidate first. Edward says that the change has allowed people the freedom to form their own opinions, without being influenced by their peers – or their bosses.

Even if you don’t use a software tool for hiring loops, refrain from comparing notes verbally until you have formed your own point of view on a candidate. I recommend writing down your feedback on the candidate and whether you’re inclined to hire them, before you debrief with your colleagues. Again, ask yourself as you’re writing: “How could bias have impacted my assessment and recommendation?”

Use a “flip it to test” approach

In 2017, Fortune 500 executive Kristen Pressner gave a brave TEDx talk, where she admitted to harboring gender bias against women leaders, despite identifying as a woman herself. Pressner developed a technique to disrupt bias — ask yourself, if you were to swap out the candidate from an underrepresented background with one of your more typical hires, would you have the same reaction? For example, if a woman of color candidate speaks passionately, and you’re less inclined to hire her because you think of her as “angry,” would you use the same word if a white man spoke the same way?

“Flip it to test it” is a relatively easy way to call out bias as it happens. In a recent hiring decision that I was part of, a highly qualified woman of color was approached to apply formally for a role she was already informally performing the duties for. Since the organization was already familiar with her work and performance, the hiring manager saw no harm in having her skip the early parts of the hiring process. But some colleagues expressed concern about “bending the rules” for her. During the discussion, I flipped the concern by asking two questions: Would we have the same reservations if we were circumventing the traditional hiring process for a white person? In the past, when all the candidates we were considering where white men, did we focus extensively on the fairness of the hiring process? In both cases, the hiring committee unanimously answered: no. We were able to recognize our bias and eventually made an offer to the candidate.

Understand how reducing bias could personally benefit you 

Diversity in our workplace makes us smarter, more innovative, and promotes better critical thinking. It’s not only the organization that benefits, we personally have a lot to gain by working with people from all different backgrounds. By recognizing how we benefit from reducing our own bias — rather than focusing on the ROI for the company — we’re likely to be more motivated to take action.

As Gadsen-Williams told me, “A culture of equality is a multiplier. We can’t achieve a culture of equality if personal unconscious bias is not addressed first and foremost.”


Ruchika Tulshyan is the author of The Diversity Advantage: Fixing Gender Inequality In The Workplace and the founder of Candour, an inclusion strategy firm. She is also adjunct faculty at Seattle University.

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Root Out Bias from Your Decision-Making Process

We’ve all experienced the disappointment of an important decision not going our way. The feeling is far worse when you feel that the decision was somehow “rigged” against you — that you never had a chance, that your input wasn’t given its fair due, or that only some of the data was considered. You can accept a fair decision that goes the other way, but a rigged decision feels much worse. And the ill will festers.

Poor decision making happens in our business, civic, and personal lives. But often we are perpetrators, participating in or making rigged decisions, even if we may not realize it.

Rigged decisions are all too frequent, and while they come in many forms, the most virulent feature the following steps:

  1. Make the decision based on some or all of the following: ego, ideology, experience, fear, or consultation with like-minded advisers.
  2. Find data that justifies your decision.
  3. Announce and execute the decision, and defend it to the minimum degree necessary.
  4. Take credit if the decision proves beneficial, and assign blame if not.

Let’s start with the first step: Make the decision. Anyone who is familiar with the scientific method (or has served on a jury) knows that it is wrong to “make the decision” ahead of assembling the relevant facts. You must have a full view of the situation before making a choice. So why do so many people work the other way around?

Making good decisions involves hard work. Important decisions are made in the face of great uncertainty, and often under time pressure. The world is a complex place: People and organizations respond to any decision, working together or against one another, in ways that defy comprehension. There are too many factors to consider. There is rarely an abundance of relevant, trusted data that bears directly on the matter at hand. Quite the contrary — there are plenty of partially relevant facts from disparate sources — some of which can be trusted, some not — pointing in different directions.

With this backdrop, it is easy to see how one can fall into the trap of making the decision first and then finding the data to back it up later. It is so much faster. But faster is not the same as well-thought-out. Before you jump to a decision, you should ask yourself, “Should someone else who has time to assemble a complete picture make this decision?” If so, you should assign the decision to that person or team.

This can be challenging for executives who’ve created environments in which decisions are required to go through the highest level. I once worked with an organization of about 1,500 people in which a senior VP had to approve orders for copier paper! If this is how your organization works, consider whether there are ways to create an environment in which proper decision making can happen at lower levels. Doing so will free up your time for more-important decisions and improve the overall capability of your entire organization.

Next, ask yourself, “Do I really have a broad enough perspective to make and defend this decision?” It appears to me that the reason so many decision makers take step 2 (seeking data to justify an already-made decision) is they sense that the answer is “no,” even if they can’t articulate why.

This route is common both in business and in the world at large — so much so that TV personality Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” to mean, roughly, one’s preference for concepts or facts one wishes to be true. There has always been plenty of data to support whatever decision one wants to make. And doing so has grown progressively easier with the rise of the internet and social media. It is all too easy to fall victim to confirmation bias, where one pays attention to data that supports a decision and dismisses data that does not.

How can you avoid this trap? The first part of the answer lies in simply admitting your lack of confidence in instincts alone. None of us likes to admit we’re biased — after all, the word carries negative connotations. But the best decision makers I know freely admit their preconceptions. What values or beliefs may be coloring your thinking? Taking a hard look in the mirror forces you to acknowledge other perspectives, softens your decision, and helps you seek a broader view.

The second part asks you go against your inclinations: What would happen if you decided to move forward in the opposite direction of what you originally chose? Gather the data you would need to defend this opposite view, and compare it to the data used to support your original decision. Reevaluate your decision in light of the bigger data set. Your perspective still may not be complete, but it will be much more balanced.

Finally, before you commit to announcing, executing, and defending your choice, try out your decision on a “friendly” or two. A friendly is someone who is on your side and wants you to succeed. Here, I’m referring to someone who wants to protect you and has the courage to honestly tell you when your thinking is incomplete, when you’ve missed something important, and when you’re just plain wrong. If a friendly advises any of these things, start anew, rethinking your decision and the data you need to make it.

Few people set out to make a rigged decision, but when you’re pressured to make a choice fast, you may fall victim to a flawed process. By asking yourself tough questions, getting the right people involved, admitting your own preconceptions, and subjecting your thinking to someone who will really challenge it, you can expose a poor decision-making process and help correct it.

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