HR Must Work Hard to Root Out Unconscious Bias

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By Genevieve Douglas

July 21 — Unconscious bias exists in big and small ways in many workplaces, but there are strategies HR can implement to ensure that each employment decision is fair, diversity practitioners told Bloomberg BNA July 20.

Unconscious biases are prejudices people have but are unaware of. They may be based on skin color, gender, age, height, weight, introversion versus extroversion, marital and parental status, disability status, foreign accents or even where someone went to college.

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, if unconscious bias is rampant in a workplace, it can result in discriminatory treatment or practices, a flawed “meritocracy” system and a lack of workforce diversity.

To prevent unconscious bias from playing out in the workplace, human resources departments should make sure the right people are making employment decisions and judgements, Peter Linkow, founder and chief executive of Wellesley, Mass.-based Lead Diversity, told Bloomberg BNA. If these decision makers are more diverse and more experienced, they make better judgements, he said.

“Diversity begets diversity,” Linkow said. If an employer doesn't have a diverse group of people in the organization to start with, then it’s very hard to ensure that there are people in place to fight stereotypes and bias, he said.

Ultimately, Linkow advised, HR needs to put the right safeguards in place to prevent unconscious bias. Managers should model inclusion in their decisions and actions, and decisions should not be made in a rash or rushed manner. Additionally, it is “critical” that people know that they will be held accountable for hiring and promotion decisions and actions, he said.

Implementing ‘Interrupters.'

To create a system that works to prevent unconscious bias affecting talent decisions, HR must implement “interrupters.” These are pauses in processes in which HR and managers could otherwise be going through the motions without examining the choices being made, Dionysia Johnson-Massie, co-chair of Littler Mendelson’s Diversity & Inclusion Council and equity shareholder in the firm, told Bloomberg BNA.

“Managers have to be invested in diversifying the potential employees coming through the doors,” she said. They need to think about how talents can be diverse, she said, or have panel interviews that could reveal how different people approach each candidate differently.

Johnson-Massie also recommended HR enable people to feel comfortable admitting to biases they didn’t realize they had. They need to be able to learn from these realizations instead of continuing on auto-pilot, she said.

There are two categories of people with biases, Linkow said. One is the person who is carrying out an unconscious bias but is embarrassed and wants to address it once discovered; the other is the worker who is called out and does not care that he or she has these biases, he said. That person's motivation to change can be “very limited,” according to Linkow, and HR should be prepared to handle that employee as well.

Johnson-Massie gave examples of areas in which unconscious bias is most likely to occur, and what risks that could pose to an employer:

  •  Hiring practices and talent pools. There are many organizations that have difficulty identifying diverse talent, and that may leave companies open to litigation risk. Companies without specific criteria for an open job are highly vulnerable as well, she said.
  •  Everyday work choices. The nuanced choices, not just hiring decisions, also are vulnerable to unconscious bias practices. This means influencing who is on what project and how that person’s career arc may lead to a promotion or development, Johnson-Massie said. Companies should look at areas of the business where all the people of a certain level at the company are the same gender, race or age to see if the choices are fair.
  •  Equal pay. This is the area most ripe for consequences for unconscious bias. Pay decisions should come with specific business reasons, and those reasons can’t be “he has a family to support” because that is “blatantly discriminatory,” Johnson-Massie said. Employers have to examine how pay decisions are made, the ranges of pay and the factors that play into how much an individual makes.

Creating a Culture of Inclusion

The only way to sustain an HR system that continually works to prevent and stop unconscious bias in the workplace is to create a company culture of inclusion, Deborah DeHaas, chief inclusion officer and national managing partner of Deloitte's Center for Corporate Governance in Chicago, told Bloomberg BNA.

It's “incredibly important” that the tone of inclusion starts at the top of an organization, DeHaas said. Leadership should speak passionately about the importance of creating this kind of company culture, addressing not only why it’s the right thing to do but also why it is strategically important for the business of the organization, she said.

Executives' messaging should also address the importance of continuing to drive inclusion through actions and words. That ongoing communication and messaging is extremely important, and senior leaders need to “walk the talk” for employees to know they are committed, DeHaas said.

The middle management of an organization next has to manifest these values from the top, DeHaas said. Organizations can communicate these best practices for diversity and inclusion in ongoing training programs managers have throughout the year so they can learn to be inclusive, and behaviors that create that inclusive environment. “That’s where, at an individual level, they can start to hold themselves accountable” to make sure their teams are diverse, they are sponsoring and mentoring professionals in ways that are inclusive and personal, and they are allowing employees' diverse strengths to shine, DeHaas said.

The final piece of sustaining an inclusive company culture is to analyze what programs and strategies are working, DeHaas said. For example, Deloitte uses strategic analytics to assess whether the values the company stands for are actually resulting in fair outcomes, she said. Deloitte gathers data from employee evaluations, compensation practices and hiring decisions, and that has been a “very important way to be able to validate that some of the things we think are working are in fact working,” she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Genevieve Douglas in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tony Harris in Washington at

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