by Sharon Florentine

How unconscious bias impacts IT recruiting and hiring

May 19, 20155 mins
CareersIT JobsIT Leadership

Organizations have made great strides tackling overt discrimination and creating more inclusive working environments. But what's harder to identify, and harder to change, are unconscious biases that have an equally detrimental effect on recruiting and hiring, as well as the everyday work environment.

Making recruiting and hiring decisions based on a candidate’s height sounds ludicrous, right? And yet, according to research from Timothy A. Judge and Daniel M. Cable, published in the June 2004 issue of Journal of Applied Psychology, there’s a perception that height correlates with success. While only 15 percent of American men are taller than six feet, more than 60 percent of corporate CEOs are over six feet tall.

Judge and Cable’s research also shows that, when adjusted for age and gender, each extra inch of height is worth approximately $789 per year in increased salary.

As Howard Ross, co-founder and chief learning officer of consulting firm Cook Ross asserts in this brief on diversity and inclusion, “It seems not only unfair, but patently absurd to choose a CEO because of height, just like it is unfair and absurd to give employees lower performance evaluations solely because they are overweight. Or to prescribe medical procedures to people more often because of their race. Or to treat the same people different ways because of their clothing. Or even to call on boys more often than girls when they raise their hands in school. And yet, all of these things continuously happen, and they are but a small sampling of the hundreds of ways we make decisions every day in favor of one group, and to the detriment of others, without even realizing we’re doing it.”

The challenges of unconscious biases

These all are examples of unconscious bias, says Valeria Stokes, chief human resources officer and staff diversity officer for the American Bar Association. Speaking at TLNT and ERE Media’s High Performance Workforce Summit in Atlanta earlier this month, Stokes explained that while businesses have made great strides toward eliminating overt discrimination and bias, there are still challenges when it comes to unconscious biases.

“There’s sill a paucity of racial, gender and sexual orientation demographics in leadership or in decision-making roles. We still see inequality in hiring, promotions and salaries. And many managers are ill-prepared to handle diversity issues,” says Stokes.

No one wants to think of themselves as biased, says Stokes, and most workers truly believe that they’re not racist, sexist, age-ist or any of the other “-ists” that can be used to label a person as intolerant and prejudiced. But the fact is, humans are biologically wired to be biased, and to quickly categorize the world — and other people in it — based on pre-conceived notions.

“To put it simplistically, our ancestors had to quickly assess their surroundings and make decisions about whether something or someone was dangerous or safe. And the same is true, to a different extent, today. Without these biases, we’d have so much trouble making sense of the world,” Stokes says.

Where issues arise is when these biases are used to assign value to certain characteristics or traits and to base decision making on these biases we might not even be aware of. “We all have biases, it’s important to admit and acknowledge that. The problem, though, is that many businesses and managers will say, ‘We don’t even need to talk about diversity because we’re only interested in hiring the best talent,’ and then they’re ignoring unconscious bias. What they assume is that there’s a level playing field for women, for people of color, for economically and socially oppressed groups — and that means those groups aren’t going to be given a fair shake,” she says.

Diversity fatigue

Another issue is diversity fatigue, says Stokes, which can help reinforce a culture of silence around these issues. This occurs when members of a dominant group — say, Caucasian males — become overwhelmed by the myriad issues of discrimination, unfair treatment and oppression and feel powerless to address them. Diversity fatigue can also affect members of underrepresented groups, though in different ways.

“The culture of silence can lead to a reticence in challenging authority and a replication of the status quo, which doesn’t help anyone. People start to think, ‘What’s the point in fighting these systems? I’ll just do my job and go home — there’s no point in challenging any of this. It’s not worth the hassle,'” Stokes says. Or, members of a marginalized group may feel it’s easier to accept the dominant views of the majority demographic and begin hiding or attempting to cover up their differences in order to fit in — they go along to get along, she says.

They’re called ‘unconscious’ for a reason

Because these biases are activated involuntarily, without awareness or intentional control, it can be nearly impossible to address them through traditional diversity training and education, says Stokes.

“Nobody wants to think they’re biased, or that they’re doing an injustice to anyone, so they aren’t willing to examine that — you can’t get to these issues through introspection. That’s why they’re unconscious biases!” she says.

Making a start to address unconscious bias

Addressing unconscious bias starts with acknowledging and accepting that every single person holds them, without placing blame or shaming individuals. Then, it’s important to increase awareness of how these biases affect talent management practices, and to look at business-based outcomes of diversity practices — how diverse companies are more competitive, how they’re better equipped to serve their customers and are increasingly seen as an employer of choice for job seekers.

“We have to look at evidence-based outcomes to affect change. By fostering an understanding of the positive outcomes of diversity talent management efforts, you can overcome diversity fatigue and heighten awareness of the need to change,” says Stokes.