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Unconscious Bias Can Shape Company Culture: Here’s How to Root It Out

Choosing the best people for your team can be difficult. To do it, you need a strong pool of candidates, a hiring process that engages top performers and an internal culture that brings out the best in those you hire. 

Before you can achieve any of these goals, however, you’ll need to reckon with your own unconscious biases.

Unconscious bias can be a difficult challenge to tackle precisely because we don’t realize how heavily it influences our decision-making. The effect of unconscious bias can be particularly strong when it comes to hiring for cultural fit, since the hires that feel like a good fit may be precisely those who reflect our own prejudgments about our business, our team and our goals, says Chris Carosella, CEO of Beta Gamma Sigma.

To build a strong culture, executives and recruiters alike will need to understand how bias works and how to combat it.

Unconscious Bias 101: What It Is and How It Works

Unconscious bias, also known as implicit bias, is inherent in the way the human brain works. Faced with hundreds or thousands of sensory inputs every second, the brain applies pre-conscious shortcuts to sort information and make sense of it. 

“Our biases are essentially thinking shortcuts. We rely on our unconscious processing ability to handle about 99 percent of the information we process,” says Hayley Barnard, cofounder and managing director at MIX Diversity Developers. 

This pre-conscious processing can be extremely useful in protecting us from a sudden danger, like a loss of balance or an object hurtling towards us. Executives and recruiters who allow it to make hiring decisions, however, risk damaging the company’s internal culture and competitive edge.

Unconscious biases can take a number of different forms during the hiring process, says Joelle Emerson, founder and CEO at Paradigm. For instance, “similar to me” bias describes an unconscious tendency to prefer people with whom we feel we share something in common, like hometown, alma mater or cultural background. Confirmation bias describes the impulse to prioritize information that confirms your first impression of someone else and to discount information that contradicts that impression. 

team working at desk representing unconscious bias in a company culture

How Fighting Bias Helps Your Customers

Unconscious bias can also lead to a poor experience for customers and clients. For instance, when YouTube first launched its video upload app for iOS, as many as 10 percent of the videos uploaded by users were upside-down. 

But the problem wasn’t the users, say Laszlo Bock and Brian Welle, respectively former SVP of people ops and current director of people analytics at Google. The problem was the design team.

“[The app] was designed for right-handed users, but phones are usually rotated 180 degrees when held in left hands. Without realizing it, we’d created an app that worked best for our almost exclusively right-handed developer team,” say Bock and Welle. 

A more diverse team finds it easier to spot potential problems, since multiple perspectives overlap on each project. Your customers and clients benefit. 

The Relationship Between Bias and Culture

Unconscious bias not only affects how leaders and recruiters view individual candidate or employee efforts. It can also affect which factors leaders and recruiters find meaningful in the first place. 

In a study of performance evaluation and management, Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, HR leaders at ADP and Cisco respectively, found that evaluations often depended as much on what the evaluator prioritized as they did on what the evaluee had accomplished. 

“Objective as I may try to be in evaluating you on, say, strategic thinking, it turns out that how much strategic thinking I do, or how valuable I think strategic thinking is, or how tough a rater I am significantly affects my assessment of your strategic thinking,” say Buckingham and Goodall. 

When choosing success criteria, then, it is essential for leadership to understand the factors that lead to success in an unbiased manner. Here, artificial intelligence can play a significant role in reducing bias, says Rogerio Rizzi, senior vice president of corporate strategy at SAP.

Tools with artificial intelligence or machine learning capabilities can analyze information on the background and performance of employees in every position. The system can provide insight on which skills tend to lead to success on the job. It can also highlight places in which unconscious bias may be affecting hiring decisions — for instance, by revealing where teams are composed primarily of people from one gender, race or age group. 

Since leaders’ bias regarding which factors matter most has a significant impact on culture, it is perhaps unsurprising that leaders’ opinions on the importance of fighting bias matter, too. 

Taking a constructive, optimistic approach to fighting bias can do much to help leaders, recruiters and teams spot and correct their own initial miscategorizations of others. A company’s approach to bias is most effective when it is “about really understanding [bias] and understanding how it can come into play in our decision making and about having a conversation about it,” says Michele Matthai, director of culture and inclusion at Rockwell Automation. 

team working at a laptop representing unconscious bias in a company culture

Tools for Combating Unconscious Bias

Because unconscious bias sits at the forefront of our every decision, addressing it will require a number of different tools and approaches. Combining unbiased digital tools with a conscious commitment to improving diversity and inclusion offers a comprehensive approach that can transform a company’s culture. 

Using Digital Tools

Even when hiring managers or recruiters create job criteria based on the skills required to succeed in the position, they may unconsciously adjust their evaluation of candidates’ skills based on information that isn’t actually relevant to the job at hand.

For example, researchers Eric Luis Uhlmann and Geoffrey L. Cohen constructed a study in which they created two resumes for a particular job. One emphasized formal learning while the other emphasized hands-on experience. They then asked study participants to rate the qualifications of each candidate for the job.

When the two resumes had no identifying information attached, study participants tended to rate the candidate with the formal education above the candidate with hands-on experience, stating that they considered the formal education essential to success. When the resume showing formal education was tagged with a conventionally male name and the resume with hands-on experience was tagged with a conventionally female name, participants continued to rate formal education as more important that hands-on experience.

When the names were reversed, however, the study participants’ attitudes changed. Suddenly, they rated hands-on experience as more important and relevant than formal education. 

“Even without ambiguity in applicants’ credentials, the criteria used to assess merit can be defined flexibly in a manner congenial to the idiosyncratic strengths of applicants who belong to desired groups,” Uhlmann and Cohen say. For instance, recruiters with an unconscious bias toward male candidates may see their strengths as essential to the job and their weaknesses as nonessential or trivial, while they may discount female candidates’ strengths and consider their weaknesses as fatal flaws. 

The central benefit to using digital tools to assist in decision-making is that the tools won’t create double standards. When instructed that certain skills are essential or certain experiences are nonessential, a digital system will apply those same factors to every candidate, regardless of the candidate’s name, age or other factors. A system that uses artificial intelligence to spot patterns can also provide essential feedback on how the company has hired in the past and which skills are actually correlated with success in a particular position. 

Thinking Long-Term

Incorporating tools that offer ongoing support to fight bias is a must. Bias isn’t an acute issue, but a chronic one with profound effects on the growth of company cultures, says executive coach Lily Zheng.

“The outcome of any implicit bias training shouldn’t be to cure people’s bias or make them more objective — it should be to make them bias-aware,” Zheng writes. Recruiters and hiring managers who are aware of bias and its risks are equipped to choose the best tools for fighting unconscious biases across the company.

Unconscious biases exist in all of us. Executives who do not address these biases, however, risk building company cultures that can’t maintain a long-term competitive edge. The right tools can help companies combat bias and build strong, diverse and inclusive teams. 

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