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Vol. 40, No. 6

Is there bias in your hiring process? Removing it takes diligence, self-awareness

by Marilyn Cavicchia

"After a phone interview, a hiring manager invited me to meet with her for a face-to-face interview. When I arrived and introduced myself, she looked perplexed as she scanned my face and hesitated a bit while shaking my hand. She then said in a surprised tone, 'Wow, I'm sorry. It's nice to meet you. You're just so articulate.'"  

"In another instance, a hiring manager walked me to the elevator after an interview and asked me, 'So, what are you?' He could not readily identify my race or ethnicity based on my features."

Both of these instances of bias in the hiring process were experienced by Alexis Terry, senior director of diversity and inclusion at ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership.

While they may seem like extreme examples, human resources directors, diversity and inclusion experts, and others often point out that we all hold unconscious beliefs and attitudes called implicit biases - and that these can creep into our words and our actions, including when seeking candidates to work at the bar association.

"You can't control it," says Christine Ford, director of human resources at the Oregon State Bar, "and you can't beat yourself up about it. But be aware of it - and then change your actions, what you do, once you recognize it."

While it's important for everyone to do the sometimes uncomfortable work of recognizing and directly challenging their own biases (the OSB recently held an all-staff training session on this topic), the hiring process is one area of particular concern. How can HR directors, managers, and anyone else who might be involved in hiring make sure they're not screening some candidates out by unconsciously seeking "someone just like me?"

This article contains many practical tips to help eliminate bias throughout the hiring process. For a deeper dive into the research on implicit bias - and links to many helpful resources - please see "Research and reflection: Recommendations from ASAE's senior director of diversity and inclusion," which offers further guidance from Terry.

Don't just post in 'the usual places'

Bias can enter the hiring process at the very first step, says Sharon Jones, CEO at Jones Diversity. "For example," she says, "posting job notices in the 'usual places' is not a way to get a diverse slate of potential employees." Post on a variety of websites, she advises, and make sure to include some websites specifically focused on people who are diverse in ways that are underrepresented among your current staff.

"Many of these groups post job openings for free as a service to their members," Jones adds.

Ford relies on a number of different outlets—and people—to help get the word out in a variety of places. For example, she often posts ads in newspapers for a number of ethnic communities in the Portland area, and the bar's Diversity and Inclusion department publicizes the job opening via its social media accounts. If the position requires a law degree, Ford adds, she contacts specialty bar associations as well.

Be aware, too, that the job description itself can reflect implicit bias. For example, says Michelle Silverthorn, diversity and education director for the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism, research shows that women are less likely to apply for jobs whose descriptions use stereotypically male terms such as “assertive” and “aggressive," and are more likely to apply for jobs whose descriptions use "female-sounding" terms such as “dedicated” or “sociable.”

Avoid common resume traps

The resume itself is another place where bias can enter the earliest stages of the hiring process, Jones says. "There is a lot of research that demonstrates much implicit bias based on the name on the resume even when identical resumes are used," she explains. The address, too, can be problematic: Because residential racial and ethnic segregation is still commonplace, an address can be used to infer someone's racial or ethnic background and screen him or her out.

"Someone who doesn't participate in the hiring decision should screen resumes for unnecessary information and delete it before moving the resume through the process," Jones recommends.

Besides name, address, and graduation years (which can be used to infer a candidate's age), what other information might be unnecessary at the resume stage? Jones suggests that a broader idea of what details are irrelevant can help broaden your pool of initial candidates.

For example, she says, the name of the school where someone got a degree may seem like important information, but it can be dangerous as far as allowing bias to creep in.

Why? It can be used as a "proxy," she explains. If, say, a certain position requires a law degree and excellent writing and research skills, many employers make an assumption based on the school where the candidate earned his or her JD.

"Employers should be focusing on testing those writing and research skills," Jones says, "as opposed to relying on the proxy that if you went to a certain few schools, you can write and research, and if you went to other schools, you can't write and research."

At the Law Society of Scotland, says human resources director Fiona Stratford, the shortlisting process doesn't use resumes at all. Instead, she explains, all applicants fill out a three-part application form, either online or in hard copy.

"The first section is the information used to shortlist, such as the person's skills, experience and employment history," Stratford explains. "Once selected for interview, the interview panel is given access to the second part of the form, which lists personal information such as name and address."

The third section, she adds, is an equal opportunities form that gathers diversity-related data for each applicant. That section, she notes, is removed from the application form so that specific answers can be aggregated but can't be traced back to particular applicants.

Keeping bias out of the interview

In an effort to decrease some of the tension—and dig further into the candidate's personality—it can be tempting to view a job interview as a freewheeling conversation that is based largely on what the HR director or hiring manager learns from the candidate's resume.

However, many experts recommend developing a standard set of questions pertaining to a particular position and asking those same questions of each candidate. The first interview - which Ford always conducts herself, and by phone - follows the template fairly strictly. The second interview also follows a strict set of questions, she notes, but it is an appropriate time to ask a candidate to elaborate on certain points.

ASAE's Terry is another fan of standardized questions. Before hiring managers receive resumes or other applicant materials, they should be educated on regulatory policies, employment law and compliance standards, she says, and standardized interview questions, structured criteria for resume assessments, and screening protocols should all be developed and shared.

"This strategy helps you formalize a set of objective checks and balances around the notion of 'fit' beyond personal preferences," Terry says; determining who will "fit" into an organization is an area where she and others advise particular caution. 

"Are you hiring for talent," Silverthorn asks, "or are you hiring someone who fits in?"

At the second interview for a job at the Oregon State Bar, each candidate meets with Ford and the manager for the position; usually, Ford and the manager arrange in advance to each be responsible for asking certain questions. Having two people in the room and actively involved in the interview can help decrease the risk of bias, she says.

"There's a trap you can get into, where in less than 30 seconds, you've made your judgment of the person," Ford explains. "If you're not careful, you'll spend the rest of the interview asking questions to support that judgment."

Jones says that having more people - and more diverse people - involved in the hiring process is one effective way to "disrupt" implicit bias. "Through discussions of the diverse hiring team," she explains, "implicit biases are likely to be surfaced and appropriately addressed."

ASAE's Terry agrees that a diverse hiring panel is key. If one member of the panel insists that he or she is "color blind" and doesn't hold any biases toward race and ethnicity, then "another person for whom race is personally and professionally meaningful may add a different lens," she says. Likewise, a person with disabilities may offer an important perspective on the accessibility of your office, or even the point size used in your job description.

"We naturally gravitate toward like-minded individuals," Terry says, "so a panel of this nature fosters differing perspectives that lead to a more impartial, unbiased hiring determination."

Be aware, too, that the interview process actually begins a few minutes before the candidate enters the room. "Many women and minorities will tell you stories about being overlooked in lobbies, being asked to get the coffee, being asked where Mr. Z is," Silverthorn notes. "People who are younger than their qualifications face that a lot as well." Make absolutely sure, she advises, that your receptionist knows that he or she must treat each person who enters your bar's office with respect.

Difficult but important work

Preventing implicit bias from affecting hiring decisions not only means making sure that other people aren't acting from their unconscious beliefs and judgments, experts say—it also requires self-reflection and honesty on the part of the HR director.

"I have a huge responsibility to not let my biases—that we all have—enter into the process," Ford says. "I have a responsibility to be aware, and to do my own diversity training, not just for the staff, but for myself, too."  

While all employers should attempt to eliminate implicit bias from their hiring process, Jones believes that this may be especially important in the legal profession and at bar associations.

"I think the legal profession has a higher obligation to [eliminate bias] given the roles that lawyers play in society," she says, "and I think that bar associations should mirror the population that their members serve.

"All things being equal, what explanation is there for failing to mirror the community?"