How can we address unconscious bias in the hiring process?

Our eight-year-old came home recently and declared she no longer wanted to use her given name and wanted to be called something else. We immediately leaned in, thinking she was being bullied or teased. We found out it was something quite different. A student in her class, with the support of the principal and a family member, announced that going forward, this classmate no longer wanted to be called Jane, but to be called Jay.

She wondered why we were asking so many questions. “It’s not a big deal, you know.” We both sat there expressionless. Any eight-year-old would probably take this in stride, but to most adults, it’s a very big deal. However, it shouldn’t be.

This conversation I had with my daughter is actually part of a much bigger picture, especially when it comes to HR and hiring because of our conscious and unconscious biases.

As a recruiter I need to remain objective about my clients and candidates alike. The truth is, unconscious bias is more common than we’d like to accept. We don’t notice it, but it comes in many shapes and forms. If your unconscious bias to a name, or a gender, or a race steers you away from hiring an individual, you may deprive your team of the opportunity to discover  innovation.

Unconscious bias is the reason why people with unique or unfamiliar sounding names usually don’t get to the top of the resume pile. It’s the reason why we might view male candidates as more qualified than female candidates. And, it’s part of the reason why companies end up with employees who look, dress and sound alike. We express affinity bias by treating people who went to the same college, like the same sports team or come from the same home town differently from those who did not.

Gender, age and race bias can occur in face-to-face interviews, when it’s easier to consciously or subconsciously judge a candidate based on how they look. Studies have proven that even job descriptions hold unconscious bias depending on which words are used. Some words, like “understanding” are more associated with women, while words like “analytical” are usually associated with men. Confirmation bias is when we actively look for clues that prove what we already think about someone else. The list goes on.

Our unconscious biases are all different. Although we are all wired to view the world based on how and where we grew up, it doesn't have to be this way.

Think about the different way you might view the world if you learned a right-to-left alphabet versus a left-to-right alphabet. Cognitive science tells us that the way we learn to process language has everything to do with how we process the world.

Imagine the power of a team that can combine those amazingly different ways of seeing a problem and formulating a solution to it. It’s hard to rewire ourselves away from these biases, but this wiring is breaking a critical link between diversity and innovation.

Most companies know they should focus on diversity, but managers frequently struggle to give it the attention it deserves. According to recent report by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 41 percent of managers say they’re “too busy” to execute diversity initiatives. It’s a clear sign that to make an impact, diversity needs to be placed higher on the priority lists of staff, managers and executives alike.

Even though we can’t necessarily control our unconscious bias, it doesn’t mean that we can’t become more aware of it and make hiring decisions that promote and embrace diversity.

Focusing on improving diversity is an “all hands on deck” project. It’s not up to just managers, HR or executives. It’s something that the entire company needs to be thinking about and working on regularly.

There are many benefits to having a diverse workplace. Embracing diversity allows staff to offer more varied perspective, unique experiences, talents and ways of doing work. For example, one hiring manager I know had a huge customer support issue. Nothing was working and people were burning out quickly. This hiring manager took a chance on a candidate he otherwise might not have, and she ended up reworking the process to slow it down. She used a “take time to save time” approach, which was unique to her cultural and education background and perhaps a function of her gender too.

By ignoring unconscious bias, companies would miss out on hiring potentially incredible employees -- all because they weren’t “ideal” in the mind of the person who first read their resume.

So, how can we collectively work on improving the hiring process to avoid unconscious bias?

It will take courage and leadership from not just people at HR departments, but from executives and leaders working in all departments of a company. Everyone must take ownership of this issue and not treat it as just another “thing” devised by the HR department to add to the pile of existing work.

One way we can nip unconscious bias in the bud is by becoming ultra-aware of the verbiage HR professionals use while crafting job descriptions. For example, job descriptions with words like “ninja,” “boastful” and “analytical” are more likely to ward off female applicants, while words like “collaborate,” “resilient” and “self-aware” are more inclusive and gender neutral.

And when it comes to the actual interview process, we can implement structured panel interviews that use a grading system to provide a 360 degree view of candidates. That way, hiring decisions aren’t made just by one or two people, but by many across different departments and roles in the company. This also allows candidates to be weighed on other competency factors instead of just by personality or from a first impression.

Many companies, and even entire states, are already fully aware of these issues around unconscious bias and have taken action.

Last year, Massachusetts Legislature passed the first equal pay law of its kind in the US. It prevents employers from asking candidates about their compensation history until after a job offer is made. Of course, candidates aren’t required to share that information. What this means is that a company can’t make an offer based on the previous salary of an applicant. Additionally, the law prevents companies from restricting conversations about salaries in the office.

Google is paving the way for the elimination of unconscious bias in the hiring process. The company has candidates meet with several different staff members from different departments. Members in each interview could include people who will be working above them, below them and even someone who isn’t even in their department. Where possible, Google also uses a sample test to measure competency instead of just relying on face-to-face interviews.

We should all, at a minimum, look beyond the 10 seconds that make up our first impressions and get deeper into structured interviews that measure competencies and cognitive ability. By becoming aware of our unconscious biases and the way they affect our hiring decisions, we can come one step closer to fostering creativity and innovation.

As far as my daughter? Last weekend I asked her if she had thought of any names she would like to be called and she replied, “Nah, it was just a phase, I’m over it.”

And if you want to discuss unconscious bias in the workplace or how to foster diversity, feel free to reach out directly at Laura@meredithconsultingllc.com.

Are you interested in seeing where your own unconscious bias stands? I encourage you to take an IAT (Implicit Association Test) through Harvard University’s Project Implicit. There are a handful of tests there, and the results may surprise you.

 

If a great candidate experience is a competitive advantage, what are you doing about it?

In our household we live according to a few simple guidelines, using them to teach our 10 and 7 year old girls simple yet valuable life lessons. I truly believe these guidelines can also be used to create a positive candidate experience.

A memorable candidate experience has a direct impact on attracting and recruiting top talent. The quality and consistency of this experience is defined by your team and the process you practice. By having a solid plan of  engagement, transparency, and appreciation, you will shape a candidate’s impression of your organization and ultimately impact their decision on whether to take your offer over the competition’s.  

Be respectful - Share the expected process and timeline for interviewing.

Be honest - Commit to communicating openly with the candidate. Follow through with your candidate on the timeline you agree - don’t leave her hanging. Allow your candidates access to you by providing your direct contact information.

Be responsible - Implement practices that make the most sense for the role and the team.  Break up an interview panel to investigate different competencies. Remember, not every interviewer is qualified to evaluate the right answers for every role.

Be grateful - We are in a candidate driven market stocked with quality talent who have come to expect a sharp employer brand, a speedy interview process, and open lines of communication.

Be kind - Finding a job nears the top of the list of life’s great stresses. Yes, it can be tedious to put together a thoughtful response to a candidate you aren’t even intending to interview, but they deserve to know their status in the hiring process. A kind word in a sea of unanswered queries will set you apart.

Candidates who are hired after positive experiences are more likely to be productive right from the get go, already committed to your team’s goals. Those who are not hired walk away from a positive experience feeling respected and appreciated. Remember, all candidates talk both online and offline.

At Meredith Consulting, we implement the tips outlined above and would love to help you streamline your hiring process.  

The Dreaded Question, "What is your biggest weakness?”

“What are your strengths and what is your biggest weakness?”

This is perhaps the most dreaded interview question and at some point you are going to have to answer it. Can I offer you some solid advice? Be prepared with a well thought out answer.

Getting through the first part of the question is easy but calling out your flaws, that’s down right scary and could backfire. Instead of answering with the standard, “I’m an overachiever”or “I’m a workaholic”, perhaps it’s time to take a closer look at the question, think about what you and the interviewer can learn from your answers, and formulate a thoughtful response that plays on your strengths without making it seem like you are avoiding the weakness topic.

Let’s start with the goal of the question. Most interviewers ask this question because they want to see how well you handle challenges - including answering tough questions - but also to learn more about the “intangibles” like how you make decisions or handle stress and hear some specific examples of those strengths and weaknesses. Honestly confessing a weakness shows a sign of character and takes courage. Use this as an opportunity to talk honestly about how you work. After all, one of the things you are both trying to asses during an interview is cultural fit.

I often answer the question this way. I tend to rely on my experience and intuition when making important decisions. And even though I gather facts and data and do my research, I tend toward a "go with your gut" decision making style. This is my strength but it also is a weakness, because when you rely on intuition and experience, you can sometimes allow your unconscious biases to impact your decisions. A lot of the time, your experience alone will help you make a good, or at least a defensible, decision. But sometimes you will get it wrong. The important thing to communicate here is that you have a particular working and decision making style. You want to be sure that fits within the culture of the company and is something your future boss will value.

For example, I once had a candidate explain how they had been an overachiever in the past which had led them to over committing and under delivering. They explained that by focusing on prioritization they have been able to overcome this personal flaw. It’s safe, overused and text book.

Whatever you choose, don’t say a fear of public speaking… everyone says they’re overcoming a fear of public speaking!!!

Focus on what you do, rather than what you are. Be careful to not make it sound like therapy by saying, “it’s something I’m working on”.

The person who will benefit most from this answer is you, Don’t be afraid of putting yourself out there, so answer honestly it could mean the job!

 

Back to Basics

In our house, as we approached the end of the long holiday break, we created a household help checklist with a few daily chores and responsibilities to help get us back into our routines. We sat down with our girls and reviewed the list, privileges we hope they will earn, the goals and consequences if they don’t complete the weekly list. It dawned on me that we were talking about “the basics”. Shouldn’t we already have these routines of making the bed, brushing our teeth, doing our homework down? Could we have truly forgotten these basics over the two week break?

Candidates that are interviewing for the first time in five or ten years may have forgotten the basics too. The consequences aren’t as simple as no use of electronics or 5 minutes early to bed… no the consequences are far greater. YOU don’t get the job.

Perhaps a quick review of the Interview Basics is in order to start the new year off.

  1. Do your homework . Read everything you can on the company website, read the earnings report, mission statements, leadership team bios, employee content, company culture. Spend time reading LinkedIn profiles or blogs of people you will be interviewing with. CyberSTALK them! They will have already Googled you, more than once. Look at industry articles, or tech sites like TechCrunch, Mashable, Inc, Fortune, Hoovers, Valut, and Glassdoor. This is a great place to gather background information, conversation starters, and thoughtful, relevant questions for your the interview.
  2. Dress to impress. It’s true that you never have a second chance to make a first impression, but don’t over due it. Since you have done your research, you may have seen pictures of people dressed at a corporate event or just hanging around the office. Maybe you know someone at the company and and they can give you a few tips. When all else fails, ask your recruiter!
  3. Know your story . Often times you will be asked the same uncomfortable questions, “Why did you want to leave your current job?” or  “What are strengths/weaknesses?”. We all have a story, we all have a past. Knowing ahead of time the story you want to tell and the key talking points that best represent an honest picture of you will help smooth over these questions.
  4. Practice. I know you’re thinking, really, practice? YES! If you haven’t interviewed in a few years or more or even been part of an interview panel, it’s great to practice your story, thinking of common objections and how to handle them, and get yourself comfortable with the questions/answer format. Ideally, ask someone to help in a mock interview so you can feel comfortable answering the most uncomfortable questions. I like to write out my answers to a few of the typical questions - you won’t have to think as hard about those answers, which will leave you with more brain power to handle the curveballs.
  5. If you want the job, ask for it. At the end of the interview say, I’d really like to work here, do you have any reason that you wouldn’t hire me? You have nothing to lose at this point, even though you might not want to hear what might be said. Better to deal with it head on and handle any objections face to face. There’s nothing worse than riding the elevator down after your interview and having that “palm to face” moment when you realize you tried your hardest but didn’t ask that simple question. Remember, there’s nothing wrong with the presumptive close.

For more ideas on THE  BASICS check out:

https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are/transcript?language=en

https://www.themuse.com/advice/34-interview-basics-to-keep-in-mind-when-you-get-called-in-at-the-last-minute

ps://www.pongoresume.com/articles/42/job-interview-basics.cfm

If you’d like to chat, I can be reached at laura@meredithconsultingllc.com