So you say you’re not a racist.
You’re not a sexist, a homophobe, or any other dirty name in the book. You’re proud of your progressive worldview, your tolerant agenda, your liberal posture. You claim to be absolutely color blind and gender neutral, and you wish that everybody else could be just like you.
There’s just one problem: all of us have hidden biases. Even YOU.
Regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or political orientation, we all buy into cultural stereotypes to a certain degree. Very few of us do this consciously or maliciously. This type of bias is not the blatant sexism of the 1950’s or the hostile racism of the 1960’s. It is a system of subconscious beliefs and associations.
Unfortunately, the recruiting world is no different. Even the most tolerant, progressive recruiters look for candidates of certain demographics. Their hidden biases hamper the diversity initiative, leaving us with nothing but quotas to keep diversity alive.
But where do these biases come from, and how can we fight them? The first step is to admit that we have them.
YOU’RE NOT IMMUNE
If you’re a liberal, a minority, or an all-around moral person, I’m here to tell you that you still have biases. None of us are immune.
Studies show that employers are more likely to hire a man than a woman, even when their qualifications are identical (fastcompany.com). Meanwhile, candidates with “African-American-sounding names” have more difficulty getting employers’ attention than those with “white-sounding names” (www.kenan-flagerl.unc.edu).
Workplace bias goes beyond race and gender, however. The UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School notes that “blond women’s salaries were 7 percent higher” than other females, while almost 60% of Fortune 500 CEOs are “just shy of six feet tall” (compared to just over 14% for the general population).
Moreover, the general population still associates certain professions with men and others with women. If I asked you to picture a nurse, you would probably picture a woman. If I asked you to picture an accountant, you would probably picture a man. If that is the case, you have an unconscious bias.
Some bias is rooted in truth. It is true, for example, that nursing is a predominantly female field and that accounting is a predominantly male field. It is true that most NBA players are African American, while most NHL players are Caucasian. Because we know that these facts are generally true, we tend to assume that they are always true.
Furthermore, it is human nature to overemphasize differences between groups and underemphasize differences within groups. For example, as a white man, I might exaggerate the differences between myself and a black woman. I might underestimate the differences between myself and another white man. We all do this; that is why we clump together based on our demographics.
There is also the role of confirmation bias. For example, some employers worry that women are too emotional to hold high-level positions. An employer who believes this stereotype might keep his eyes peeled for any female agitation in the office. Even the slightest sign of human emotion appears to be a confirmation of this stereotype.
Combined, each of these roles lead to the continuation of our undetected biases.
RECRUITING WITH BIAS
When bias creeps into recruiting, qualified portions of the talent pool are ignored. For example, if my job is to recruit an accountant, but I only look for men, I miss out on all qualified women. Not only is this unfair to women accountants, but it makes my job more difficult as a recruiter. Perhaps there was a woman in the area that fit the bill, but I failed to look at her.
This leads to an even larger problem. Because recruiters fail to find qualified women and minorities on their own, management is forced to implement quotas. These quotas lead to less qualified talent, as employers simply want to reach the numbers instituted. It suddenly becomes less about true diversity and more about the company’s image.
None of that would happen if recruiters could implement diversity initiatives on their own.
While many organizations now suggest using artificial intelligence to decrease hiring bias, I believe that this is only a piece of the puzzle. Rather than blinding themselves to their bias, recruiters must learn to take responsibility for it.
The simplest way to combat any type of bias is to become familiar with those of the opposite demographic groups. Ridding oneself of the “us versus them” mentality requires branching out and creating relationships with those who look nothing like ourselves. In the process, we find that our differences are quite minimal in the grand scheme of things.
Isn’t that what recruitment is about? Forming relationships with those we might not otherwise meet? Recruiting itself breaks down barriers when done right. When we consciously consider the entire candidate pool, regardless of visible characteristics, we encounter diverse groups of people.
By practicing this initiative, we tear down our own walls. It is not through mandates, quotas, or a denial that we all feel a bit uncomfortable sometimes. We can learn to enjoy each other’s company and recruit for diversity.