Bias is like water seeping through an unseen crack in your basement. You may be totally unaware of it until one day, the water is lapping at your stairs. Even more scary: bias in your perceptions can be so subtle that you don't recognize your bias, but those around you will.
Bias versus Prejudice
Prejudice is the attitude that leads to obvious unequal treatment. Bias is more subtle unequal treatment and professionals often engage in it unconsciously. It may be couched as an “objective observation,” such as, “Susie’s great, but she can’t move up into this position because it demands a lot of overtime and she has young children.” Or, when equally qualified candidates are vying for a position, decision makers may subconsciously lean in favor of the person who fits the more traditional image, which may result in unintended bias based on gender, ethnic background or sexual orientation.
Why Bias Matters
Perceptions of others unconsciously based on their ethnicity, gender or life status can prevent hard-working employees from getting opportunities they deserve. As a result, they may leave, which increases company expenditures for hiring and training. Those who stay may become disengaged and do the bare minimum, instead of giving their all. Ultimately, senior leadership will lack the benefits of diversity, such as the ability to see issues from different perspectives and to ensure that the company’s products are attractive to diverse consumers.
Look at your company’s demographics and retention rates. If you find a higher percentage of women and minorities among new hires than middle and higher levels, investigate why this is so. Perhaps changes in hiring practices have increased the company’s diversity in recent years and it’s a good news story. On the other hand, women and minorities may be quitting at a higher rate. If you do have a lower retention rate among diverse employees, use exit interviews to help you understand why. Have a neutral party, such as an HR staff member, conduct the interview to increase the chances of getting honest answers. Take the responses seriously, even if the employees' perceptions differ from your reality.
Perceptions of Leadership
Even if management doesn’t engage in bias, employees may perceive this to be the case. The best way to avoid the appearance of bias is to make personnel decisions transparent. Post all vacancies so that all interested applicants can apply. Make position requirements clear so employees or outside candidates can see whether they have the necessary qualifications. Once you choose a candidate, give the other applicants honest, detailed feedback so they understand why they were not chosen and don’t leap to unwarranted conclusions about bias.
A retired federal senior executive currently working as a management consultant and communications expert, Mary Bauer has written and edited for senior U.S. government audiences, including the White House, since 1984. She holds a Master of Arts in French from George Mason University and a Bachelor of Arts in English, French and international relations from Aquinas College.