You are biased. That’s not intended as an insult — it’s a simple statement of fact. Because if you’re reading this, you’re human, and as a human, you’re necessarily biased. So if you happen to be a human who’s an IT hiring manager, you need to figure out how to prevent your bias from influencing your hiring decisions.
That was my takeaway from a conversation I had recently with Howard Ross, a diversity training consultant and author of the book, “Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgments in Our Daily Lives.”
I opened the conversation by presenting Ross with the following scenario: Let’s say I work in IT security, and part of my responsibility is for the physical security of the IT operation. It comes to my attention that three laptops are missing from a secure storage area that only a handful of employees have access to. All of them have denied stealing the laptops, so I have to interview those employees to try to determine which one of them is lying. Given that a person’s biases have a huge impact on whether or not he believes someone, how do I manage my bias so I’m not swayed by it one way or the other as I interview those employees? Ross said the most important thing is to recognize that we’re going to have biases:
We’re going to have a tendency, in this scenario, for example, to trust the veracity of one person over another. There are legions of examples, throughout history and in business, of people who were able to pull things off because they were seen as trustworthy—they didn’t look like the type of person who could commit the wrongdoing. So are we equally rigorous with everyone we interview? Are we asking everyone the same kinds of questions? Do we have a process in place to make sure we treat everybody equitably? That’s the most important question.
I presented Ross with another scenario: Let’s say I’m a hiring manager in an IT organization, and I’m interviewing candidates for a software development position. Suppose a male candidate comes in, and he has an earring, and I have a very strong bias against men who have earrings. Let’s say he’s extremely well qualified, and he does a great job of answering my questions, but I’m just having the hardest time getting past that darn earring. How do I overcome that so that this guy gets a fair shot at the job, and my company doesn’t let a potentially great developer slip through its fingers? Ross said it was an important question, because it’s something people are dealing with every day:
We constantly have changing norms of appearance and behavior. So the question we have to ask ourselves—and this is a fundamental business decision—is whether our norms of professional dress are outdated, and whether that norm is more important than getting the best talent. Particularly in IT positions, it becomes even more of an issue, since a lot of the work people are doing is in the back room, so to speak—it’s not like they’re necessarily customer-facing. But even in customer-facing environments, the customers may well share the norm that we may find ourselves having a problem with. The challenge can be that people in leadership positions usually share the previous generation’s norms, rather than the current generation’s norms. Choosing adherence to your own norms over having the best employee just is not good business in my world.
Ross went on to explain that it’s important to manage bias in recruitment:
What are the things that you do to draw people into your environment? Let’s say you use search organizations—are you clear that the search organizations you use don’t have biases? Often we rely on a particular search company because they’ve provided us with good talent in the past, and we don’t realize that there may be a bias on their side. If they show us a talent pool in which only one out of nine candidates is a person of color, we may say, “Oh well, I guess that’s just who’s out there.” And what kinds of organizations do we look to? That shows up where colleges and universities are concerned. There are many organizations that recruit solely from certain colleges and universities, without realizing that there’s a lot of talent in other places. That’s especially the case nowadays, when people are making college choices based on financial considerations as much as on academic considerations. When I was teaching at Bennett College for Women, which is a historically black college [in Greensboro, N.C.], I had several students who had been accepted to Ivy League schools, but went to Bennett because they wanted to have the HBCU [historically black colleges and universities] experience.
Ross also addressed the issue of mentoring in the context of bias:
Whom do we decide to mentor or sponsor or stand up for in the organization? Whom do we decide to make ourselves available for? One of the things that we know about mentoring, for example, is that mentoring programs aimed at a particular group, like women or people of color, are corrective, but they don’t necessarily create the right mindset in an organization. It often reinforces the notion that people in those groups need help, and other people—specifically, white men—don’t. On the other hand, if you have a mentoring or sponsorship structure in which everybody has access to it, and we can actually see who gets more and who gets less to make sure that it’s equitable, it’s much more effective.
And what about gender bias? Ross said it manifests itself in any number of ways:
Where performance reviews are concerned, we know that we evaluate behavior differently. For example, studies have shown that women are often reviewed more on the basis of their personal qualities, and men more on the basis of their business qualities. That also shows up in reference letters. … A lot of companies look for high-potential employees to put on a leadership track. We know men are often evaluated in terms of their potential, and women more in terms of their performance. That has a lot to do with how we develop and promote talent, and the decisions we make around that.
Ross wrapped up the conversation by mentioning his book, and what he wants people to get out of it:
The most important thing is to understand the normalcy of bias—that bias is as natural to human beings as breathing. I have to say, as a mea culpa from my industry, the diversity industry, we’ve contributed a lot to the demonization of bias—this notion that bias equals badness. Bias doesn’t inherently equal goodness or badness. Sometimes it can be very valuable, and even lifesaving. Sometimes it can be very dangerous and life-threatening, or career-destroying. The key here is whether we’re conscious of the choices we’re making, and whether we’re making them in a way that serves the basic function of the organization, community, or society we’re a part of.
A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.