Got Dreadlocks? Asperger’s? A Husband? All Can Test Hidden Biases

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She shows up to the interview in a tidy dark suit, polished pumps, understated pearls, studious-looking spectacles—and a head bursting with fuzzy, matted black-and-blond dreadlocks.

In her world her hair is a social statement—a rejection of conventional, Western mainstream beauty standards.
In your world she looks like a Hydra.

Are you justified in concluding that clients might think this woman is lazy or rebellious? Or could you be saddled with a condition that employment experts like to call hidden bias?

“She might very well be lazy and a bit of a rebel, or she might be someone who is artistic and will bring a breath of fresh air and creativity to your team,” said Howard Ross, a diversity training consultant and author of Everyday Bias (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014). “Your first impression is not likely to tell you that. As a rule, I believe that first impressions are
overrated. They generally are simply projections of other people from our past.”

Where Hidden Bias Lurks

Despite companies’ efforts to eliminate bias in hiring and promoting, many managers aren’t aware of the hidden biases they have when it comes to clothes, hairstyles, headwear, height, weight, age, race, gender, disability and even marital status, said Sara Taylor, a diversity expert and founder of deepSEE Consulting.

“Height, weight, race, gender—even how similar a person is to their manager—all may impact lifetime earnings through salary, raises and promotions,” Taylor said. “It’s probably no surprise that most CEOs of Fortune 500 companies in the United States are men. But did you also know that 58 percent of those are 6 feet tall or taller, even though in the general population, only 14.5 percent of men in the U.S. are this tall?”

Hidden bias often convinces people of what is “good,” “right” or “professional.” For instance, some cultures value tasks over relationships, while it is the opposite in others.

“We typically aren’t aware of it as a preference and [instead] see it as the ‘right’ way to work,” Taylor explained. “When team leaders prefer tasks over relationships, they will unknowingly structure the team, its work and its interactions around that bias. They likely will also negatively perceive others with a preference for relationships.”

James Wright, a diversity and inclusion strategist, trainer and speaker, has witnessed hidden bias when managers interviewed gay, lesbian or bisexual applicants. Because it’s human nature for interviewers to seek something in common with a job applicant, he said, “sometimes the question comes up, ‘Do you have a spouse and kids?’ ”

Managers “will offer that information about themselves in an interview in hopes of finding common ground, but they’re already putting that person ill at ease.” The same thing happens when employees discuss office holiday gatherings, he said. “The chatter around the water cooler is, ‘Are you bringing your wife? Are you bringing your husband?’ Those words can send the message that you think everyone should be straight.”

Similar bias crops up when managers select people for job advancement. According to Wright, research shows that white men get more promotion opportunities than white women or men and women of color. It surfaces in hiring people with disabilities. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) released research in 2012 that found that more than half of organizations don’t actively recruit people with disabilities, 42 percent don’t train HR staff and supervisors how to effectively interview those with disabilities, and 60 percent lack senior managers who demonstrate a strong commitment to disability recruiting.

“We say we think they can do the job, but here’s a reason why companies still struggle with [disability] hiring,” Wright said. “It’s not because [disabled applicants] aren’t qualified; it’s because there’s bias around whether we think that [disabled] person can really do the job.”

Survival Mechanism

We all bring hidden biases to the workplace because our brains rely on filters created from past experiences to make sense of the avalanche of information that comes at us each day, Taylor explained. Without these filters, “we wouldn’t be capable of the complex thinking that we take for granted.”

One type of filter persuades us to rely on third-hand information—such as the media or stereotypes—when we encounter people with whom we have limited experience, like those with Asperger’s syndrome. A second filter encourages us to feel most comfortable around people who are similar to ourselves and to more easily forgive their faults. And a third filter tempts us to accept information that confirms our beliefs about people who are different from us and to reject information that contradicts those beliefs.

Such filters are also a remnant from caveman days, when humans were learning how to survive in the wild.

“Bias functions as our human-danger detector,” Ross said. “At an earlier time in our evolution, we might have seen a group of people and asked whether they were ‘them’ or ‘us.’ Knowing the difference might mean staying alive. So we developed the ability to quickly determine whether a person was safe or not. The challenge with living in a diverse society is that the same tendencies that can protect us can also separate us.”

A Bad-Hair Day?

Wright has his own story about a black job applicant he interviewed who appeared to have unkempt hair. Wright, who at the time was a manager at a company that he preferred not to name, said the woman looked perfect on paper—talented, educated and with excellent references.

But when she walked into his office, he said, “it looked as though she’d just woken up; her hair was very bushy and wasn’t styled, and I thought to myself, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is not a person I can put in front of an executive.’ ”

The next manager who interviewed the woman decided not to hire her.

“I would submit a lot of that was because of her appearance,” Wright said, adding that she might have landed the job had “she come in with her hair straightened, looking more ‘white’ and less ‘ethnic.’ ”

Such hidden bias can have legal repercussions. In October 2013 the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued a Mobile, Ala.-based insurance-claims company, alleging the company discriminated against a black applicant based on her race when it rescinded her job offer after HR staff met her and told her she must cut off her dreadlocks, which she refused to do.

“The EEOC will not tolerate employment discrimination against African-American employees because they choose to wear and display the natural texture of their hair, manage and style their hair in a manner amenable to it, or manage and style their hair in a manner differently from nonblacks,” said Delner Franklin-Thomas, district director for the EEOC’s Birmingham office.

Overcoming Bias

In what instances can managers distinguish between a “hidden” or “unconscious” bias and a reliable “gut instinct” or “first impression”?

“Sometimes our unconscious bias is something we should listen to and may actually be an accurate observation,” Taylor said. “The difference is being aware of our biases, identifying them as they arise and checking them, versus unknowingly being driven by them. Someone that is unaware of their bias [may] automatically discount the candidate. Someone that has their bias in check will investigate further and ask the right questions to determine if this is indeed a good candidate, regardless of” the first impression.

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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