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3 techniques for making sure implicit bias doesn’t impact your talent life-cycle

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Unconscious or implicit bias exists in every corner of your organization. This term, which has been part of a growing conversation in recent years, refers to the subtle and not so subtle preferences that everyone has but are rarely aware they’re toting around with them every day.

If you have people in your organization, you have unconscious bias in your organization. And one area where implicit bias can be particularly harmful is the talent lifecycle.

The talent lifecycle consists of all the organizational decisions made that impact a person’s career — how a job is advertised, who gets an interview, the job offer or a promotion, how assignments are given, how performance is managed, and what development opportunities are made available.

Read more: 5 ways to prevent unconscious bias from ruining your company culture

If we agree that we all have bias and that bias impacts our decisions, that means there can be incredible variation in that talent lifecycle based on the decisions being made.

To be clear, we all have a responsibility to produce quality results, advocate for ourselves, and manage our own careers. But the simple fact is that individual success, opportunities and possibilities often hinge on decision-making power that sits with other people and sometimes those decisions are made not through the lens of talent and potential but instead through bias and preference.

Read more: How to address microaggressions in your diversity and inclusion plans

So, how can organizations mitigate bias in the talent lifecycle and avoid hampering the prospects of qualified and capable people who could be contributing to the organization and powering its success?

1. Build and support robust hiring panels: Start with having hiring panels rather than a single hiring individual. Hiring panels ensure that there are multiple perspectives and viewpoints that serve as a check on each other’s biases. For hiring panels to work as intended, one person’s voice shouldn’t outweigh everyone else’s.

As far as composition, three tends to be the magic number of individuals for hiring panels, as more than that can be overwhelming for the candidate.

It’s important for these panel members to be trained in how bias affects decision-making. In addition to diversity around gender and race (which is critical), seek diversity in terms of level of seniority and function within the organization.

When interviewing someone, consider having one person who would be their manager or at a level above them, one person who would be their peer, and one person who might report to them. That diversity of perspectives is important.

2. Hold career pathing conversations with everyone: Once someone is on board at your organization, you can embed best practices around career pathing and how the individual is developed. That starts with managers asking themselves if they can articulate where everyone on their team sees themselves in five years (not where they want them to be but where the employee wants to be).

If you haven’t asked your team member that question or had that conversation with them, it’s easy for bias to creep in. You might reason to yourself that “Madeline probably isn’t interested in that promotion or in being in a leadership position” based on some of your own biases around who a leader is or should be. As a result, you might create a shortlist for promotions or for high-profile assignments that could lead to promotions that consists entirely of people that hew to your own idea of what a leader looks like.

The result? A broad swath of people doesn’t even get a chance to move up the ladder.

3. Turn to data: A final best practice to embed at all stages of the talent cycle is an enthusiastic embrace of data. Data is your friend. You can't know if bias is part of your hiring process if you don't have data on the composition of your applicant pool and who is being offered jobs. You need to have data around pay equity and on promotions. If you offer a formal leadership program, you need to know what kind of access there is to those programs across race, ethnicity, gender, career field, years of service, etc.

Data isn’t just quantitative numbers. Qualitative data is also very illuminating. For example, are you using gendered language in your job descriptions, asking for “warriors,” “ninjas,” or “soldiers”? If so, you might be inadvertently filtering people out and skewing the applicant pool in a certain direction right from the start.

There’s an overarching lesson across all of these areas: Any time a process is informal, unconscious bias is likely to slip in. Without a framework or criteria on how to hire or how to promote, you will be more reliant on your feelings — and feelings aren't facts.

The more you can formalize the policies and procedures you have in place, and approach these areas in an intentional manner, the more you can root out implicit bias and make sure it finds no foothold within your organization.

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Diversity and equality Racial Bias Recruiting Hiring Data management
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