Don’t Let the Unbiased Become the Enemy of the Less-Biased

Don’t Let the Unbiased Become the Enemy of the Less-Biased

There is an important and ongoing dialogue about workplace bias, its causes and consequences, and the most effective ways to combat it. When we participate in that conversation, the better part of our nature is often revealed: We want nothing less than to figure out ways to reduce or even eliminate bias among the otherwise good people we work with. Sometimes, however, we are too quick to shut down potential solutions just because they stop short of those lofty goals.

Take this recent article by Laura Allner at Personnel Today, about initiatives in the UK to create “name-blind” application processes for university hiring in an attempt to combat unconscious bias among recruiters. The idea is that by forcing recruiters to evaluate resumes without the details that could help them guess the race or ethnicity of the applicant, it will be harder for those recruiters to discriminate. Allner dismisses the value of name-blind CVs, because unconscious bias is still likely to creep in at other stages of the process, especially interviews:

Without going so far as to introduce “blind” interviews, with voice distortion technology, it is unclear how effective name-blinding will be in reducing discrimination in recruitment.

There is plenty of evidence that workplace bias exists, and that it hurts women and minorities in many ways, including several large-scale studies showing discrimination in the job application process. And of course it’s important to recognize that name-blind application processes and efforts like them (including name-blind assessments for HIPO and other internal employee programs), don’t actually reduce unconscious bias. They just try to get around it by not allowing existing bias to get in the way of decision-making.

Nonetheless, efforts like these shouldn’t be so quickly dismissed. Even if bias exists at every stage of the recruiting pipeline (and I don’t doubt it does), resulting in some percentage of qualified candidates being unfairly removed at each step, when organizations can mitigate the effects of biases at any individual stage, the result will be a larger percentage of targeted individuals making their way through to the end.

Is it a perfect solution? No, not at all. Does it eliminate or even reduce biases recruiters may be unfairly bringing to the assessment process? No, not that either. But solutions like these should help. And while taking a more practical, results-oriented approach to bias may not be as satisfying as trying to weed it out of our organizations entirely, workplace discrimination is one area where we really shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.