Can You Avoid Implicit Bias in HR Decisions?


The short answer is no, but you can change it.

I recommend the Implicit Bias: What We Don’t Think We Think workbook to human resource teams. The workbook is geared toward preachers and teachers in The United Methodist Church; it also has significant insight for human resource professionals.

The workbook helps define implicit bias in ways that are easy to understand. Your team can review the illustrations and discover ways to re-frame them for your context. For example, you can discuss ways the HR profession may be impacted by implicit bias, in recruitment, retention, performance evaluations and compensation decisions. Laws like the Equal Employment Opportunity Act (EEOA) enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) are guardrails to help avoid harmful biases. However, we need the insight of our own implicit bias to uphold these laws.

In the section titled, “Before You Get Started,” you are encouraged to take the Harvard “Implicit Bias Association Test.” Taking this test is highly recommended. It will give you insights into your own implicit bias. Bias is subconscious and we all have bias.

As explained by Michelle Ledder, director of equity and anti-racism, implicit bias is a thought shortcut the brain creates so we don’t have to make every individual decision each time we encounter it. Two concepts are placed so tightly in the brain, for example: fire equals hot or flower equals pretty. The way we think is so influenced by these short cuts we don’t notice them i.e., a flower that is ugly is strange to us. Therefore, implicit bias in and of itself can be good, neutral, or harmful but cannot be eliminated, because it is just the way the brain functions for everyone. However, the brain cannot tell the difference between implicit bias that is created with neutral or good ideas and those which have been informed (or infected) by stereotype, prejudice, and “isms.”

We may be familiar with and guard against race, age, ability, and gender bias. Have you considered if you have a friendliness, accent, or attractiveness bias? Yes, those are real. Look out for it when making hiring decisions.

The GCORR Implicit Bias workbook helps us to think in a more social way about bias, what it is, and why it is. The exercises show us how implicit bias works.

One exercise encourages you to write down your first thoughts about people you encounter for one day. This is quite a learning experience. You will see how you truly respond to people you meet or work with on the regular basis. Your first thoughts may surprise you. You may stumble upon some stereotypes or prejudices. That is expected. You first have to recognize the bias before you can guard against it.

Once our stereotyping and prejudices are revealed to us, we can start to question them. The workbook guides you in questioning your bias. Where did the bias come from and why.

The workbook uses exercises from Howard Ross’ “10 Ways the Unconscious Mind Filters the World.” The workbook exercises help you to discover different types of bias, including the patterns and values we attribute to people because of our bias.

In our Human Resources work, we can turn the 10 filter examples into office situations. Question who is invited to certain meetings and why. Question who cleans up after the office party. Question who gets the plum assignments, why and how often. Question what positions are always open or in the process of being filled. These biases do not go unnoticed and they affect staff morale.

Again, knowing you have bias can help you flag the unfair biases when they arise.

You have the choice in how you respond to bias in your role as HR: deny it, ignore it, or change it

Written by Frances Roberts, PHR, SHRM-CP
Assistant General Secretary for Administration and Human Resources

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