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Unconscious Bias: Cloning in the Workplace


It’s lonely being the only one in the room.

In my nearly 25-year career in media, I’ve often been the only Latino around a decision-making table. It’s frequently the same situation for any person of color.

Nielsen reports that the multicultural population is 120-million strong and increasing by 2.3 million per year in the United States. They make up 38 percent of the population today, and are projected to become the numeric majority by 2044.

According to a Fortune magazine 2014 report, more than 95 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs were white men. If you were to look at their organizational charts, then most of their direct reports (and their direct reports) would be reflective of them — white men.

How could it be there are so few of “us” and so many of “them” in top management positions, when study after study shows that the multicultural community is leading not only the country’s population growth, but also the economic growth as well?

The answer is unconscious bias.

Shaping our perceptions

We all have it. Unconscious bias is a fundamental way that human beings are wired that helps us make daily decisions. The filters we develop based on our life experiences shape instant perceptions about people. How we decide who is valuable is based on what is familiar to us.

Here’s a wonderful example of bias at work: In a Carlsberg TV commercial, unsuspecting moviegoers had to choose between sitting in a theater full of intimidating-looking characters or leave.

What would you do in this fight or flight situation? Most of us would choose to leave due to our perceptions of who’s dangerous and safe.

This Carlsberg spot might be apples and oranges when applied to your workplace, but there are similarities. At my office, relationships are forged based on the sports we play, the teams we follow and our alma mater. In a matter of seconds, we make decisions about a person we meet based on how closely they resemble us.

Fitting into the culture

The first criterion that hiring managers use to recruit candidates is themselves — when measuring skill sets and experience, and when deciding if the person would be a good fit with the company’s culture. This culture is bred by the “haves,” which limits the “have-nots” because of a lack of shared experiences like socioeconomic factors, including education.

Homogeneity isn’t strictly a white male problem — it applies to any recruiter who a candidate is facing across the table. Research by the Kellogg School of Management found that hiring managers favored recruits who shared their experiences and interests. The demographic makeup of a company might look diverse, but what’s underneath is the same.

Breaking the cloning chain

So, how do we break this chain of cloning in the workplace? Well, like patients seeking help with an addiction, executives first need to accept that they have a problem. One can only help leaders who realize that they must embrace and apply a philosophical change.

In an effort to improve the underrepresentation of female musicians, the top 5 U.S. orchestras began using blind auditions in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. The hopefuls played behind a screen for a committee who couldn’t see them.The results were noticeable. The population of female musicians increased from 5 percent to 25 percent in approximately 20 years.

So, if recruiters admit that the selection or promotion process can be flawed, then could something like this be applied in the evaluation of résumés, job experience and applications? Yes, but only if diversity is a priority in key decision-making.

Here are some best practices from The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA):

  • Train hiring managers about unconscious bias blind spots.
  • Ensure that the selection committee is diverse.
  • Develop job-related criteria that are reflective of a larger pool of candidates.
  • Educate on the internal and external demographic population for the position to be filled.

Consider making sure that you are regularly interacting with people who are different from you. The fact that I’m a Latino does not pardon me from unconscious bias.

As a hiring manager, I make it a point to engage and develop relationships with people from other backgrounds. You can do that in the workplace by inviting colleagues for coffee or lunch. I also travel to various markets across the country, attending events representative of different communities.

As the multicultural market grows, a diverse workforce is key in providing companies with a competitive edge that is vital to their future success. If not corrected, unconscious bias will lead to poor decision-making, and result in a company becoming irrelevant and inevitably obsolete.

Hugo Balta

(this article was written for PRSA Tactics on 10/29/15)
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