The Dangers of Implicit Bias

By: Nancy Keyser, June 6, 2017

My hometown, like many of yours, is rifled with hidden gems — amazing parks, wonderful museums and outstanding performance arts. One of my favorite Cincinnati gems is The Freedom Center (aka The National Underground Railroad Museum), which focuses on “America’s battle to rid itself of the ugly scourge of slavery and treat all its citizens with respect and dignity,” per its website. The Center is also a convener of dialogue on freedom and human rights and is representative of the city’s role in the quest for freedom.

One of The Freedom Center’s current exhibits is called “Open Your Mind: Understanding Implicit Bias.” Implicit bias is defined as “the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions and decisions in an unconscious manner.” Whether we recognize it or not, bias can creep into our everyday behaviors even if we don’t blatantly exhibit prejudice in our actions. These unconscious biases make it difficult, if not impossible, for us to alter our behavior.

I am fascinated by how this topic relates to the work I do with clients, helping them make sound hiring and development decisions. If we accept the reality that implicit bias exists in us all, we will inevitably incorporate this bias into decisions we make about our talent. The use of competency-based assessments, like the ones we build for clients at The Devine Group, adds objectivity to hiring decisions. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of candidates in terms of competencies allows employers to make meaningful comparisons on the factors that matter most. Competency-based assessments also serve as a vehicle for development by assisting employees in managing their strengths and bringing to light areas of opportunity. Using these tools helps remove implicit bias from our thinking about our people.

Here are some other ways to reduce the risk of implicit bias in our actions and decisions:

  1. Focus on process – have a clearly-defined process for all hiring decisions, with established rules and protocols. Tools like competency assessments, interview guides, and decision checklists can help make this happen.
  2. Establish decision criteria before you start evaluating people – if you work in HR, you can play an important role in eliminating bias by making sure your managers have carefully documented the relevant criteria that will be used for hiring and development activities.
  3. Challenge your thinking – play devil’s advocate against yourself and your team in terms of assumptions, perceptions and opinions of candidates and employees.

Most importantly, leaders should acknowledge that implicit bias is a natural behavior for us as human beings. Awareness of how this bias may creep into our minds is an important first step to eliminating it as a risk in our human resources actions.