Getting rid of bias in HR
published by , on 15/11/2016

By Dorothy Dalton (CEO 3 Plus International)

There is much talk about getting rid of the bias in recruitment. In real terms this means getting rid of the bias in recruiters and pretty much everyone who works in the talent management process too.  But that is easier said than done. Persuading individuals to understand that bias isn’t only found in others is challenging. We all have unconscious biases. It’s about us too. And the function which is responsible for managing the talent pipeline is not always open to recognising the part they play in the process of perpetuating biases of all kinds.

I have seen situations where HR practitioners, even in D & I, demonstrate varying levels of bias and inadvertently entrench outdated stereotypes. I recently flagged up to an HR colleague that their recruitment promotional material was filled with images of white men.   They were appreciative and hadn’t noticed. Some time ago a recruitment heavyweight was snippy with me because I gently suggested his language choice was sexist. He was less thrilled. HR policy manuals, even for D & I initiatives, frequently include military or sporting terminology or acronyms. The word “ninja” needs to go!  No one is even aware of this because the messages are so subliminal and deeply embedded in our cultures.

No one means anything by any of it. Yet it does untold and hard to assess damage.

Read: Male coded messages cut out women


If we force employees to train on this sensitive subject, any efforts are frequently can be met with resistance or even hostility.  The responses they give are along the lines of:

“We are all decent, caring empathetic people. We are not biased at all.”

“We have a D & I policy and a women’s network. We can’t possibly be biased”

Right….? Of course everyone believes themselves to be decent and caring. But wrong. We all have biases. It’s just a question of becoming aware of them because they all have different roots. Raising awareness of unconscious bias in HR whether it’s in the HR processes, the corporate culture male coded policies, or in individuals themselves, is seen as tiresome, political correctness.

The only solution is to deal with unconscious bias in HR itself, and that means we have to deal with ourselves. That takes time and needs a kick start.

The ones that get away

Kristin Pressner, Global Head of Human Resources at Roche, and a tireless advocate for, and promoter of women in the workplace identified this exact syndrome in her really important and must watch TedX talk “I’m biased, are you?”  .  In this valuable and brave “outing” of her own bias, she recognizes what I have observed in myself and in others around me. We all need to be more vigilant to recognize our own hidden, irrational biases — and keep them from limiting us.

In June 2016 I wrote a post “Why does HR not do more for gender balance.” The premise being that there was something that didn’t quite jive because HR is dominated by women. Yet the needle barely moves on gender balance at a senior level.

I talked about 2 reasons that contribute to this situation:

  • HR has become a pink skill silo
  • Lack of business training and competency to become a valued partner to the CEO.

What I didn’t talk about was unconscious bias in HR itself. With a function dominated by women, managing those biases should help for gender bias at least.


Read: #HRTechWorld addresses gender balance in Tech

Flip it to test it

Kristen’s approach of flip it to test it, is an excellent way of cross checking ourselves which I absolutely love.  Her question of “how many times have you not caught yourself” when it comes to exhibiting bias against women will be one that we can’t answer. By switching gender roles of the presenting issues, we can test our own reactions to see if they still stand. See what happens when she ascribes male qualities to a female report and vice versa.

Similarly unknowingly I had applied the same test to myself. But imagine how many times these biases go unchecked. How many do we miss?

Kristen adds:

It’s easy to go to training and then accuse others of unconscious bias– but only when we recognize it in ourselves can we change. One of the most humbling moments of my life was realizing that I could have a bias that was counter to everything that I stand for. Once you’re broken down to that point, you have nothing to lose (but a lot to gain) to share that story”

If you have any doubts take the Harvard Implicit Bias Test. I test as exhibiting gender bias. A teaching friend over the summer found to her horror that at a very subconscious level she saw science as a male field. She had a role as a university courses advisor in her school.

Read: Naomi Bloom: How HR can drive Gender Balance in Tech

Until then the talent pipeline will be leaky at best and deeply fractured at worst. We all need to follow Kristin’s lead and start working on ourselves.

(This article was originally published on HRNblog)

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