Hidden Bias Impacts Talent Management

by Howard Ross

Talent ManagementWhen we hear the word “bias,” many of us often immediately jump to racial, gender, age or cultural assumptions — which do apply. But what about the hiring manager who is more productive in mornings, therefore unknowingly favors interviewees scheduled before noon?

Consider Martin, who is down to the last three candidates and their interviews have been scheduled on the same day. As the 9 a.m. interview begins, Martin notices, “There is something about this young man that I like.” The interviewee seems a little nervous, so Martin calms him down and gives him a second chance to answer the first question. The interview goes great. The second occurs over lunch. Martin runs out of a meeting and meets the candidate and decides to take her to the cafeteria, but he still has that last contentious client meeting on his mind and knows that he is going to have to hurry to call them back after lunch. Martin finds himself distracted and rushed. The third candidate is across country, so that one is “Skyped.” The connection isn’t the greatest and the session is frustrating.

Are these “equitable” interviews? Of course not. Despite the fact that Martin may want to interview all three candidates “fairly,” there are any number of factors here that have an unconscious impact on his assessment of the candidates and will undoubtedly influence his choice.

Unconscious bias impacts every phase of talent management and cannot be fully eliminated from our reactions to people. However, it is possible to mitigate the impact of bias by looking at several aspects of how we manage talent. By creating conscious structures and processes, we can create more consistency in the process and be able to make better selections. These interventions occur generally in four ways.

Providing education about unconscious bias, especially to people managers. Education in and of itself may not be able to dramatically reduce bias, but it can encourage people to engage in different behaviors that just might accomplish that.

Priming the manager to be more aware by discussing bias just before a talent management interaction. Review the conversation about unconscious bias before any talent management process begins.

Creating structures and systems that can help bring more consciousness to the talent management process.

Measure the results of your processes and track those measurements. Are certain people consistently more successful than others? If so, there is a reason! Worry more about finding that reason and less about placing blame, and your talent management system will become more inclusive and conscious!


Structures and Systems …

… when recruiting:

  • Make sure job descriptions demonstrate a balance of gender or cultural patterns.
  • Be sure the way the job or the personal qualities are described doesn’t limit interest to some people rather than others.
  • Ensure as much consistency as possible in interpersonal interactions.
  • Include a diversity of people in the recruiting process.

… when interviewing:

  • Remove as many identifiers (such as name and gender) as possible in the early stages of the recruitment process. Studies have shown that people can be strongly influenced by various identifiers.
  • Include a diversity of people in the interviewing process.
  • Create as much consistency as possible around the interview — where and when it occurs, what gets asked and who is evaluating.

… when hiring:

  • Watch for differences in the way reference letters are written. They can be an enormous source of bias.
  • Watch out for your own comfort level with certain personality types. “Fit” is important, but often our bandwidth is too narrow.
  • Use diverse panels for hiring recommendations, and watch out for groupthink on the panel.

… when mentoring:

  • Be sure to communicate clearly the purpose of mentoring and its structure.
  • Consider creating a uniform mentoring process across the board instead of specialized mentoring for certain groups. In this way, they can be compared “apples to apples” in terms of the opportunities each are getting.

… when reviewing performance:

  • Beware of numbered processes (e.g., 1-5), which create a subjective “quantified” look. Rely more on feedback given in conversation.
  • Be careful to observe rater biases relating to current projects or clients. Does the employee get more credit because the project he or she was working on is more important, more recent or more urgent?
  • Watch for places where you might be measuring against personal standards as opposed to measuring against success.

… when developing and promoting talent:

  • Look for patterns of awareness about employees. Which employees are “known” by the organization’s leadership? Which
    are unknown?
  • Make sure there is a written development plan for every employee, and routinely evaluate and compare those plans for patterns of differential treatment.
  • Make sure there is a written development plan for every employee, and routinely evaluate and compare those plans for patterns of differential treatment.

Howard Ross, author of Everyday Bias and ReInventing Diversity, is founder and chief learning officer of Cook Ross, Inc., a corporate consulting firm. He is one of the nation’s leading diversity training consultants, with more than 30 years’ experience, and is a nationally recognized expert on diversity, leadership and organizational change. 

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