Minimising Bias: Insufficient Intentions

In the past, this column has touched upon unconscious bias in hiring, and, what some organisations have been doing to reduce it. We learnt, for example, that in South Korea this is being tackled at the highest level with the President himself speaking out against the use of photographs in job applications. The most common method of studying hiring bias is to send out two sets of identical resumes to hiring organisations. One set provides the control reference, while gender, age, and, ethnicity changes are made in the other set to see if that elevates or lowers the likelihood of interview calls with respect to the control set. For instance, Sonia Kang of Cornell University, in a recent research, has established that concealing extraneous information like gender and race can almost double the response rate for job applications in the US. Some organisations that are aware of such unintended hiring bias explicitly mention in their job ads that they do not discriminate on the basis of age, gender, religion, or ethnicity. This is well-intended, but in itself, could have unintended effects.


In a recent study, researchers at the Universities of Chicago and Monash, sent out a job description for the vacancy of Administrative Assistant to more than two thousand potential applicants, on the basis of past interest expressed by them for such a position. Half the applicants got the standard description. The other half got the same description, but, with an added statement about the employer being committed to not discriminating against applicants on the basis of race, gender, age etc. It was found that inserting this statement reduced the number of applications from racial minorities. This is exactly opposite to what one would have anticipated. Why are minorities less likely to apply when the hiring organisation explicitly mentions that it is not going to discriminate? Follow-up surveys showed that applicants read the declaration differently. They reasoned that if the company was driven to make this declaration of non‑discriminatory hiring, it was probably pretty discriminatory in actual hiring, and, would make a token hiring of minorities to keep bragging rights. This sounds convoluted, but, so is human reasoning. Research shows even greater complexity in the response of minorities to such supposedly reassuring statements. The reduced response from minorities was inversely related to their share of the population in their neighbourhoods. In other words, the lower their share in the population, the less inclined the minorities were to take non‑discrimination declarations at face value.


If these declarations are not effective, what is? Many companies sensitise their staff, particularly supervisory staff and hiring managers, towards discriminatory behaviour. The idea being that mandatory training will reduce discriminatory behaviour and help in greater hiring and retention of minorities, women, and, other historically discriminated groups. Some companies create quick response internal processes for people who feel discriminated. Others try to minimise discriminatory hiring by making greater use of impersonal tests as opposed to personal interviews. Another recent study by a pair of sociologists from Harvard and Tel Aviv Universities, examined such initiatives in medium and large US companies over a five-year period. They found that in the sample being studied, the ratio of minorities actually declined, as against increasing. Clearly there are some forces at play which are stronger than whatever HR usually does to counter discriminatory behaviour in hiring and at work.


The way forward probably lies in transforming work culture which is the elephant in the room. It provides powerful non-verbal cues that override explicit messaging from HR. The nature of jokes shared by senior staff, and, demonstrated inclusion of women and minorities, in task groups, and, even in the discussions in meetings, speaks louder than any policy document. The culture of any organisation is hard to describe in words, but shows up in the actual composition of senior management, and, in what they say in public. An all-male top team drawn from one racial or linguistic group sends out a message to unrepresented groups that they may not be welcome. Conversely, personal messages from, say, the CEO, create a better climate of reassurance than impersonal boilerplate text added to company job ads. Similarly, the presence of the CEO in internal diversity training for new hires and managers makes it clear that diversity is being sought, and, will stand sustained.


There may be an element of chicken-and-egg here. If certain groups are not already present in the organisation, it will be hard to hire more like them. Hiring people from these groups to build this critical mass is hard because they are not already present. One way to cut this Gordian knot is to do quota-based hiring for a while to build in the requisite diversity. This is obviously a sensitive issue and warrants deep discussion. US courts have upheld such reverse discrimination practices in some cases of student admissions in Universities, but jobs are a different ball game. In India, job reservation is such a sensitive matter that frank discussion is extremely hard. However, it is not impossible. Many IT companies have made significant strides in improving gender balance through targeted hiring. Driven by a sound business case, many organisations operating pan-India have built rich diversity in frontline staff interacting with customers. If the group being targeted is chosen carefully, reverse discrimination becomes easier to sell. Consider Mother Dairy, where franchises are handed out only to ex-service personnel (JCOs and ORs).

Gautam Brahma is a management consultant advising start-ups and SMEs, on strategy & operations including sales, HR & IT. He carries an experience of over four decades in the public, private and non-profit sectors, in telecommunications and IT industries. He has been an invited speaker on multiple industry forums and has been a monthly columnist on HR issues for close to two decades. Gautam is based out of Gurgaon and can be reached at [email protected]


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