Vol. 40, No. 6

Research and reflection: Recommendations from ASAE’s senior director of diversity and inclusion

 "As much as we like to think we are completely fair and unbiased," says Alexis Terry, senior director of diversity and inclusion at ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership, "there is abundant evidence that even with the best intentions, we all have biases that influence how we think and act."

In her role of advising both ASAE and its member organizations on how to eliminate implicit bias, Terry has collected information and research from a wide array of sources. What follows is an abridged and edited summary of responses she wrote to an emailed query regarding how associations can eliminate bias in their hiring process.

Evidence shows bias in response to resumes

A large set of evidence of how our biases influence our evaluations of others comes from CV/resume studies. To summarize a few of these:

  • A study by Moss-Racusin et al sent out applications for a lab manager position that had either a male or a female name. They found that the applications with male names were viewed as more competent and hireable, and were offered higher starting salaries.
  • Steinpreis et al found that psychology professors (male and female) were more likely to hire someone named "Brian" than someone named "Karen" for an assistant professor position.
  • One study (by Bertrand and Mullainathan) sent out resumes in response to help-wanted ads in Boston and Chicago. The study found that, in order to get a call back for an interview, applicants with typically black names (e.g., Jamal, Lakisha) had to send out 50 percent more resumes than did applicants with typically white names (e.g., Emily, Greg).
  • A study by Tilcsik involved sending out resumes that were identical except that one indicated the applicant had been a treasurer in a gay student organization, whereas the other indicated that the applicant had been a treasurer in an environmental student organization. The applicant who identified as gay received 40 fewer call backs for interviews.

Further research confirms the truth about names and implicit racial bias: Men with Black-sounding names like Jamal or DeShawn are less likely than their counterparts with White-sounding names like Connor or Wyatt to get called in for interviews. In terms of how we evaluate internal candidates, a survey of managers by McKinsey & Company found that "women are often evaluated for promotions primarily on performance, while men are often promoted on potential." It may be unorthodox, but I do not recommend candidates call or email to inquire about the job unless they are internal candidates.   

What can employers do to combat this?

The growing body of knowledge on reducing implicit bias in hiring suggests the following:

  • Throughout the job description, use gender-neutral terms: the successful candidate, chairperson, etc.
  • At the bottom of the job description, replace or supplement the EEO or anti-discrimination statement with the organization's diversity and inclusion statement.
  • Mitigate potential implicit bias in the Qualifications section of the job description by identifying the primary reason for specifying a certain number of years of work experience. It may reveal implicit bias about age and job readiness. 
  • Before finalizing the job description, build in a process that allows applicants to provide individual evidence of job-relevant competency, or skill demonstration. For example, if a candidate for an executive director position does not have prior experience in that role, how might the hiring process evaluate the candidate for knowledge, skills, and abilities beyond a match in job title? I highly recommend Stanford University's "See Bias/Block Bias" Toolkit.
  • When determining websites to post your job description, cast a wide net to include identity-based organizations (e.g., American Bar Association and National Bar Association). Where you post may reveal implicit bias about "fit."
  • When determining which recruiting firm to use, ask how the firm defines and addresses diversity and inclusion. Ask what training they have in mitigating unconscious bias in their work on behalf of clients. Conduct a search of the word "diversity" on each recruiter's website and see what, if anything, comes up.  Articulate, don't assume they know, you have an expectation that they deliver a diverse slate of top-notch talent for the position.   
  • When asking candidates for their demographic data, include a brief description about why you are collecting that data and how it will (and will not) be used, and be sure to replace the word "gender" with "gender identity."
  • An employer should request that all candidates exclude photos from their application materials. In addition, employers should instruct the hiring manager or team to refrain from conducting an online search of candidates.
  • In her article for The New York Times Magazine, Claire Cain Miller makes a compelling case for blind hiring. Deloitte, KPMG, and many government agencies also are using blind resumes. This entails removing all contact and personal information that hints at age, gender, culture, hobbies and other attributes that can trigger unconscious bias in the minds of reviewers. A blind resume just states skills, objectives, work experiences, and education. Some go as far as removing the name of the candidate's university.

Be careful with 'fit'

In "Why Hiring for Cultural Fit Can Thwart Your Diversity Efforts," author Celia de Anca, who is also director of the Centre for Diversity in Global Management at IE Business School and author of Beyond Tribalism: Managing Identities in a Diverse World, found that the biggest threat to diversity in the workforce in the future might not be prejudice or blind adherence to tradition, but the confluence of two rising trends in talent management: this passion for "fit" and the enthusiasm for Big Data. I agree with her assessment that "we might be creating a situation in which companies will be very diverse in appearance, but intrinsically homogenous. They will be hiring the same profile of people even though they might have very different backgrounds. Thus the company will appear diverse—but we know that appearances can be deceiving." 

De Anca says two problems are likely to emerge if homogeneity or "fit" trumps genuine diversity. The first problem is the organization becoming a "personality silo," which is an isolated unit based on a dominant personality type of a group rather than the type of work a group completes. The second problem that could emerge is the organization misses out on iconoclastic thinking in favor of consensus or falls into the trap of group think. The best way to mitigate similarity bias is to find commonalities with those who appear different. You can't change your bias of preference for the in group, but you can bring more people into that affiliation.

I'm a big fan of "objective-fit analysis" tools, such as one developed by cement and concrete company CEMEX, because they mitigate the natural biases— conscious or unconscious—that affect leadership choices and could limit the pool of qualified diverse talent in leadership pipelines. (Note: CEMEX's exemplary work in diversity and inclusion can be seen in its talent review and leadership training and individual development planning processes, and its employee "town hall," engagement survey, and leadership communication.)

If you think you don't have any biases

Interesting research on the False Promise of Meritocracy makes clear that managers who consider themselves to be non-biased judges of ability don't monitor and scrutinize their own behavior and often overlook women and minorities who can demonstrate they are deserving of job offers and pay increases. They operate on the assumption that their evaluations are accurate, and they are behaving accordingly, which creates the conditions under which implicit bias is unleashed.   

Harvard's Project Implicit features a battery of "implicit association tests" where participants can measure levels of implicit bias around certain topics based on the strength of associations between concepts and evaluations.

If you're interested in measuring your levels of implicit bias (almost everyone displays bias in some way, according to the experts!), here are a few other tests you can take:

Individual cognitive effort is not enough. We have to cultivate an organization-wide set of practices and a culture in which people continually remind one another that the brain's default setting is egocentric, that we will sometimes get stuck in a belief that our own experience and perception of reality is the only objective truth, and that better decisions will come from stepping back to seek out a wider variety of perspectives and views.