Co-workers hiding their faces with empty sheets

Every day we make hundreds of fast and quick and good decisions based on fact and personal experience.  Even if asked, we would be confident in our ability to not let any prejudice or bias cloud our efficient decision making process.  We know that we are always rational and fair.  That is, until we start paying attention to unconscious biases that actively affect our “logical” decisions.

So what is unconscious bias?

Unconscious biases are those prejudices, or repressed, instinctual feelings we have towards other people, or groups. These unconscious feelings influence our judgments, and play a strong part in our perception of those that we encounter. They can make our decisions unbalanced, affecting our work and even personal life. And if it wasn’t complicated enough, to make it even more difficult, once those biases are uncovered and analyzed, they often still don’t make any sense.

How does it affect us?

Unconscious bias considers and thus affects more than gender, age, ethnicity or race. It can also affect how we view religion, weight, sexual orientation, or even how much we do or don’t like someone’s shoes.  We like to believe we are ethical and unbiased in all our decisions. But because this is unconscious behaviour, we can fall short. Unconscious bias is far more prevalent than you would imagine – even in yourself.

Stereotypical hiring practices

When we look back on any hiring decisions we have made, we assume we have made unbiased choices for our group and organisation. And we truly are trying to do just that. But how many times do you “just have this feeling” about a candidate? Were those feelings based in fact? Or were they influenced by unconscious bias because of previous experience or personal opinion?

Did you not hire that amazing Engineer who lives further away from the office, because the last time you did, that candidate quit because in the end they didn’t like the commute?  Perhaps you hired the Asian candidate over the Caucasian candidate because ‘Asians are better at computers’. Or didn’t hire a new immigrant because they would make the same cultural faux pas the last employee did?

CEO Gail Tolstoi-Miller has a great TED Talk that speaks exactly to this. Here is someone with 20 years industry experience and over 15,000 job placements, who caught herself letting her unconscious bias make her hiring decisions for her. If someone with this level of experience I s being persuaded by her unconscious bias how can we ever hope to change?

Be mindful – and watch your mind

Start by making the unconscious, conscious. When you are sorting resumes into those two piles, go back over the discard pile and try recognising why you decided to not pursue that person. Was their experience lacking compared to everyone else? Did they not have the right software skills? Or are you unimpressed that their school was good, but not Ivy League?  You may find that after you begin this line of questioning, your ‘yes’ pile may grow!

After you have completed interviews, take time to think about exactly what it was that a candidate did or said that turned them into a ‘No’ for you. Is there a history of conflict with coworkers they mentioned numerous times? Did they not actually answer the questions asked of them in the interview? Or were they on the polo team, and you ‘know’ all polo players are spoiled rich kids who don’t know how to work hard? This method of analysis will help you begin to distill the decisions made as a result of unconscious bias from those made based on fact.

Acknowledge the unconscious biased that you have, and start to address them. Stop letting them get in your way.

Challenge yourself

When this happens, catch yourself and correct yourself. Challenge your decisions. Ask yourself – So what? Gail Tolstoi-Miller says that these two words help unwrap your unconscious bias. So what if someone has blue hair? So what if they have a longer commute but are more than willing to commute? Just because the last person quit doesn’t mean they will. Give yourself time to pause, self-check, and focus on what is important.

Give yourself time to get out from behind your unconscious bias and see it for what it is. You will be giving yourself the chance to make the best decision possible.


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