Overcoming Unconscious Bias
Ensuring that your board is broadly diverse—in every sense of that word—can and most likely is impeded by unconscious biases. The NACD-hosted Diversity Symposium yesterday opened the 2015 NACD Global Board Leaders’ Summit in Washington, D.C., with presentations from Judith Williams, global head of diversity at Dropbox, and former manager of the global diversity and talent programs at Google, and Howard Ross, founder and chief learning officer of Cook Ross, a consultancy that works specifically on inclusion issues.
Google, which lives and dies by data, wanted to understand where bias might exist in key decision-making processes so started its unconscious bias program in 2013. Google researched whether training was effective in helping employees mitigate unconscious bias, Williams recounted. One example: For interview processes, Google developed a tool that would generate questions based on role-related knowledge, leadership, and “Google-y-ness.” Questions such as, “Describe a situation where you went above and beyond to help a colleague” was a better gauge of that quality than asking “Where did you go to school and what is the highest degree that you have?” The question generator also created a rubric for rating the questions so that the interviewer would know what a great response looked like. To level the playing field even further, all candidates were asked the same slate of questions.
The question directors should ask themselves, said Ross, is not “is there bias?” but rather, “What biases do we have that keep us from making choices counter to the values that we say we believe in?”
In a business context, bias comes into play when looking at a candidate’s qualifications for a particular job. Here, the trick becomes looking beyond traditional qualifications that maintain the status quo, venturing out to find new, unique qualities that a candidate can bring to a role. For example, seeking candidates with a college degree is a standard criterion; however, this would mean that talented innovators like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates would never be called in for an interview.
Organizationally there are two things that companies can do to overcome making these snap judgments.
- Education. From the top down, everyone in an organization needs to understand the myriad distinctions among people in the workplace and the mechanics of unconscious bias. By keying employees in to how people think results in more egalitarian behaviors across the organization.
- Systems and structures: Closely examine company processes to discover how they are susceptible to unconscious bias. For example, look at how are resumes collected and screened. Before they go to a hiring manager for review, could names or other markers be removed so as not to trigger biases? Also, look at where breakdowns in the company’s various systems can and do occur.
Williams also stressed that, when thinking about problem solving, consider who is asking the questions. For example, Google was designing mobile products for state-of-the-art smartphones; however, in developing parts of the world where mobile device use is high, those users are not working with high-end equipment. In other words, Google was missing a substantial portion of a potential consumer base. Now the company operates on the idea that its next billion users are not going to be exactly the same as its last billion users, and figuring out the characteristics of this evolving consumer base requires innovative and free flowing dialog. Business leaders in both the C-suite and the boardroom need to identify and overcome their unconscious biases because if they fail to bring a variety of perspectives to the table, no one will be asking the kinds of questions that will lead to the next big business opportunity.
Jesse Rhodes is the associate editor of NACD Directorship magazine.