Biases

5 Ways to Overcome Unconscious Biases That Negatively Impact Selection for High-Performance Jobs at Your Organization

The big question is, are you, as leader, choosing assessment methods that prohibit any biases you might have from coming into play?
5 Ways to Overcome Unconscious Biases That Negatively Impact Selection for High-Performance Jobs at Your Organization
Image credit: MachineHeadz | Getty Images
Guest Writer
Leadership & Performance Consultant
6 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

We’ve all been penalized at some point or other because of our gender, age, education pathway, physical appearance or other factors. But as leaders tasked with selecting the best of the best for high-performance positions, we want to believe we’re immune to exercising prejudice.

Related: This AI Tool Helps Companies Eliminate Hiring Bias in the Name of Productivity

Now, a reality check: We're not immune. And that's serious, because allowing our unconscious biases to influence our decision-making can be costly and dangerously limiting. The good news is that there are several methods we can take to stop missing opportunities to recruit great people due to biases even we aren’t aware we have. 

Increase gender diversity where possible.

Sangeeta Bharadwaj Badal, the principal scientist of entrepreneurship at Gallup, has conducted research showing that more gender-diverse workplaces yield better productivity and results. Badal reported a clear example of this when looking at the revenue of 800 business units inside two companies, one being retail and the other hospitality.

The more gender-diverse business units in the retail company demonstrated 14 percent higher revenue on average than did the less-diverse business units. In the hospitality company, gender-diverse business units achieved a 19 percent higher average quarterly net profit than their less-diverse counterparts.

So, if you have a male-dominant or female-dominant workforce, changing the gender balance could help you better capitalize on yielding greater productivity and higher revenue.

Use anonymous, randomized referencing to remove unconscious racial bias.

U.S. Air Force Gen. Larry Spencer (retired) reported to the Air Force Times in 2016 his experience of racial bias in his time with the service. He recalled receiving advice from his African American superiors that he would need to work harder than his peers if he wanted to achieve the same accolades they did -- simply because of his race. Spencer said he didn't like this advice but that he accepted it and found it rang true.

Related: What Google Learned Fighting Hiring Bias, Bad Meetings and Failing Products

The Air Force Times reported that after reviewing six years' worth of statistics on promotion and selection rates, it found that “….if you're a minority, your odds of being tapped for promotion -- especially to the most senior officer and enlisted ranks -- are not as good as they are for white airmen.”

Employing anonymous, randomized referencing systems for applicants and candidates can greatly reduce the influence of unconscious racial bias. In research studies, participants have contributed their data anonymously and had their identity protected by assigned identification codes or numbers. This same approach can be applied to selection processes. 

Still, Rachael Marangazov, a researcher at the Institute for Employment Studies in Brighton, England, has warned that anonymous job applications aren’t a magic bullet against workplace discrimination. “It might just postpone discrimination until the interview stage,” Marangazov wrote. In short, progress might be gradual; but it's still progress when the goal is combating unconscious biases.

Design selection processes that assess only for competence. 

One way to assess for competence directly is to conduct blind assessments. These lessen the possibility of gender, age, racial, religious or other irrelevant unconscious biases having an influence.

Harvard esearchers Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse conducted a study that demonstrated an increased selection of female candidates when blind auditions were conducted to recruit symphony orchestra musicians. When a screen concealed candidates from the jury during preliminary auditions, the likelihood that a female musician would advance to the next round increased by 11 percent.

During the final round of blind auditions, Goldin and Rouse found, the likelihood of female musicians being selected increased by 30 percent.

Blind auditions may not always be possible, of course. However, if we use selection assessments that void any opportunity for unconscious bias to have an influence, decision-making will lean more heavily on candidates’ assessable performance, and little else.

Overcome the halo effect, using selection panels and feedback from multiple sources.

The halo effect is oarticularly dangerous in selection processes where interviewers associate outward traits of candidates (e.g., good looks) with positive qualities and skills.

Yet, there is no evidential link supporting these traits' validity. Short, finite assessment periods mean that chances for the true, latent qualities of a candidate to shine through are limited; and that increases the risk of a bad selection decision. While it may not be too late to reverse a bad hiring decision, economic and time losses can’t be recouped. 

Engaging a selection panel and/or instruments that require input from multiple parties creates a buffer to mitigate this bias. Such approaches mean that the evaluation of a candidate can be made from different perspectives. Standardized 360-degree feedback tools are great for gathering a variety of qualitative information about the candidate. They don’t just explore the presence of positive aspects of a candidate; they also highlight the negative ones. 

Past performance is not the only predictor of future performance.

Past performance has often been considered the best predictor of future performance, but it’s not the only one. By staying attached to a candidate’s past performance -- good or bad -- we cloud our visibility of how suitable that candidate is based on his or her recent accolades.

Instead, current performance and the degree of a candidate's recent improvement is where the magnifying glass should be focused. Analyzing the size, quality and consistency of improvement over time indicates an individual's potential and is a far better predictor of how well this person will do going forward.

Basing evaluations on one or two snapshots taken at brief moments in the past is never a good way to make decisions for the future of a team or business.

It takes a highly introspective leader to regularly ask if unconscious biases are at play. To continue to break down the walls blocking us from reaching new business heights, an awareness of unconscious biases has to be brought into our conscious minds.

Related: The Startups Trying to Fix The Bias Problem in Hiring

Ask others who know you if they see you as exhibiting preferential treatment or biases, whether they be positive or negative. It’s always easier to identify and call out the presence of others’ biases. The bigger question is, are you, as leader, choosing assessment methods that prohibit any biases you might have from coming into play?

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