Fighting Hiring Bias

Excerpted from Creators Vancouver: 

You were passed over yet again for that promotion. You weren’t even granted an interview, despite being an objectively strong fit. And now, much to the surprise of your co-workers, you were amongst the first pandemic layoffs.

Not all career slights are due to bias. Applicants might be misinformed, deluded, unlucky. But, bias does exist and it can have devastating effects on careers. ‘Too’ old or young. ‘Wrong’ race, religion, gender identity, orientation, physical abilities, weight, socio-economic background.

Some leaders with thinly veiled prejudices celebrate the uniformity of their teams when ‘PC’ ears aren’t listening. If company executives and boards are not genuinely committed to diversity, efforts to broaden will be weak and short-lived.

But, sometimes even employers with the best of intentions are unaware of the ways in which their implicit beliefs are skewing their hiring decisions. This new hire looks remarkably like the last one, and the one before that. Yet, homogenous organizations are ill-suited to serve a heterogenous world – their innovation can be stilted, their decision-making gaffes can lead outsiders to wonder: how did no one on the inside see to stop this?

We chatted with Drew Railton – Managing Partner, Western Canada for Caldwell Partners, a Canadian-owned Executive Search firm with offices across North America, Europe and Asia Pacific. Railton – twice nominated to Top 40 under 40 lists and active in supporting charities – has worked for more than 18 years recruiting senior executives and board directors.

Confirmation Biases

When it comes to hiring, any of us can fall prey to confirmation biases as we look for candidate behaviours that match our preconceptions. Those who are anti-diversity will be particularly quick to see clear proof that Candidate X – you know, that one they didn’t want to interview in the first place – is all wrong.

The Ideal Candidate

Even well-intentioned employers, says Drew Railton, can show “an unconscious bias to hire in their own image. I had a conversation earlier today with a CFO of a global multibillion-dollar company where they acknowledged that they have hired too many people on the team with backgrounds similar to their own. Good news for them is they have the self-awareness to realize this and can course correct with future hires.”

Dr. Lee Ross agrees: “What is my image of a good academic, or a hot prospect in my law firm, or a good engineer? The prototype you have is more likely going to be someone like yourself. You just say: who looks like a good bet?’”

Look To The Power Positions

Is there true demographic diversity in your organization’s power positions and succession pipeline? Right now, protestors are asking companies to reveal how many of their executives and board members are Black, Indigenous, People of Colour. If your numbers are low, which qualified BIPOC candidates can you bring in now? What can you do to develop a broader range of talent for the future? Which excellent, diverse employees can you bolster through stretch assignments and high-profile projects?

“If an individual has been successful and finds themselves in a leadership role,” Caldwell Partners’ Drew Railton emphasizes, “the unconscious bias can be towards someone who has had a similar career path.” Bring in new voices to consider hiring and promotion decisions.

Avoid Demographic Stereotyping

Take age, for example. Do you automatically assume that this 52 year old candidate is less energetic, tech-savvy or quick-learning than that 32 year old? People-probability is a risky business and you might be weeding out exceptional performers. There is great benefit, says Railton, in “diversity of thought.”

On the flip side, are you overlooking high potential young leaders? Clients can be skeptical, Railton says, about younger executive candidates who don’t seem to have “endured the hardships and earned the credibility. So, when we have a rising star it takes more time and points of calibration to build comfort level and then you almost always get that comment of will they be respected if/when we announce them in the role.”

Focus Training

‘We actually see quite a few search committees,” says Railton, “doing unconscious bias training at the beginning of the search just to bring awareness to this.”

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