Is Unconscious Bias Threatening Your Diversity Goals?

Many companies, particularly startups, have a real problem of “hiring in their own image”—favoring candidates that fit into a narrow monoculture exemplified by the founding team. The first few hires were friends of the founders, or close colleagues from a prior employer. The next few hires were friends of theirs, including many people from the same set of companies/schools/backgrounds, and so on. Before you know it, your culture emerges, and it has become…monolithic. Uniform. Unapproachable to outsiders. Not only is it lacking in gender and ethnic diversity, it is also lacking in intellectual diversity—precious few contrarians with a different way of seeing things.

With each passing month, and with every additional “one of us” hires, this monolithic feel becomes more deeply entrenched. At some point, you have created a "club" where applicants with different backgrounds from the core team don’t feel like they belong. They either self-select out of your process, or (more frequently) fail to apply in the first place, seeing few believable role models on your “Team” page. At this point, the company has essentially locked itself out of a significant portion of the available labor market, and shut the doors on the essential diversity that breathes life into any organization.

One way to get in front of this problem early on is by changing your sourcing and referral approach. Rather than trying to hire people you already know, aim instead for your friends-of-friends—those one degree separated from your immediate inner circle. This group is typically several hundred times the size of your immediate network, and invariably far more diverse. Specifically, think of your inner circle as potential connectors rather than potential candidates. Reach out to your friends who best represent the diversity you want to create, or who are otherwise well-connected in those talent pools, and ask them for referrals to potentially strong candidates.

After generating diversity in your candidate flow, the other critical tool in your arsenal is to eliminate unconscious bias from your interview process. “Unconscious bias” has become a bit of a buzzword in recruiting circles, but it is a very real force—one that can severely constrain your ability to achieve your diversity targets. The basic principle is that we can unintentionally bias our decisions when we hold candidates to different standards, or when we go into an evaluation process seeking to confirm/reject our hypothesis about a candidate rather than assessing each candidate on his or her own merits.

The most common root cause of unconscious bias I have seen is having an unstructured, gut feel-based interview process—giving hiring managers and interviewers license to ask whatever questions they want of a candidate, moving where the conversational winds happen to blow. It sounds appealing to offer that kind of freedom, of course. But with this approach, every candidate goes through a different process, and is therefore held to a different standard. When we rely solely on our instincts, we seek confirmation of our initial gut impressions, which are notoriously unreliable (and, by definition, inherently biased). We give our subconscious minds license to tip the scales in favor of the candidates we like—and these are usually the candidates who think, speak and even look like we do. 

The remedy is straightforward—adopt a structured interview process that gathers facts (not just impressions) about each candidate in a consistent manner. How do we do that? The most important first step is to clearly define what success looks like in the role, so that you are evaluating candidates against a consistent and objective measuring stick. Kill the long list of qualifications that do not have a direct impact on a candidate’s ability to get the job done. Items like “Masters degree from a top 25 program strongly preferred” or “3+ years at a tier 1 investment bank or consulting firm” are proxies for the results we expect from candidates.  Focus on the result, not the proxy.

Next, ensure you ask questions consistently across candidates. While the content of those interviews may vary across roles and levels, it is important to focus much of your time on gathering actual facts about a candidate’s prior performance rather than (for example) brain teasers and hypothetical questions. These questions can bias you towards certain personality traits (extraversion, self-promotion, overconfidence) that may not correlate with success in the role.

Finally, it is essential to have a decision-making process that is deeply grounded in verifiable data about a candidate. Gut impressions can be helpful in some instances (particularly when your gut tells you something is wrong or missing), but aim to keep the content at least 80% fact-oriented rather than impression-oriented. This will help your organization build skill and comfort saying "yes" to high-potential candidates from diverse backgrounds.

Diversity is not just a nice-to-have.  It’s a business imperative.  Fortunately, it is also quite achievable if your entire process—not just the sourcing step—is oriented towards identifying individuals who can succeed in the role regardless of whether or not they fit your historical mold.