I grew up in Kentucky and have worked in rural Texas, Upstate New York, Pittsburgh, and representing a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) at the United Nations (UN). I am fascinated by the world’s diversity in everything from hair, skin, and eye color to beliefs and dialects. But this was not always so.
In particular, I remember meeting with the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of a highly successful manufacturer when I was in Texas. I was in my 20s and had recently taken an executive level position in the front office of a minor league sports franchise. Admittedly, I was a bit full of myself. I had moved from Louisville for the job, after leaving management jobs in human resources, international shipping, and sport. I had a bachelor’s degree in sport administration and management training at a Fortune 500 corporation. I thought I knew far more than I did about business. So, when I sat with that CEO and he talked about how his company was “fixin’ to” expand its plant, I cringed.
I re-told the story several times, making fun of his use of an expression I had primarily heard from people I knew from rural Kentucky. With two words, this CEO made me question whether he deserved his title. I thought it was him. I had been told how important it was to make a good first impression. I worked throughout high school to enunciate differently and hide my accent. I learned how to speak like a young woman as educated as I was, and I soaked up my professional training like a sponge. Why hadn’t he?
Decades later, I realize that I was the problem in that story. I dismissed all that CEO achieved, and it had nothing to do with his abilities. Last year, a Yale University study indicated I am not the only one who has harshly judged people by how they speak, but that does not make it okay.
How can we reduce, if not eliminate, this unconscious bias?
Obviously, the first thing we need to do to reduce or eliminate unconscious biases is to become aware of them. Because they are unconscious, or implicit, they are usually hidden from us. We operate around them as though they are the truth, not realizing that our brains designated them as truths, based on our individual experiences and exposures. They came from childhood stories, movies, television, people we liked, and people we didn’t. They are perceived as indicators of risk. “If I hire this person, will they be a good employee? Will they make me look good?”
These thoughts are not necessarily accurate. Experts estimate the average human has 30,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day. A good portion of them might be useless, if not harmful.
We must begin to question our “gut instincts” and initial impressions. Are we dismissing someone because they are unqualified or because they are different and we can’t relate to them as easily? Are we being lazy, or have we given careful consideration to the qualifications necessary for success in the job?
What things do hiring managers unconsciously judge candidates on?
Hiring managers unconsciously judge candidates on many things, based on their own views of what is appropriate—even when they are given criteria to assess candidates on. If they are not trained to recognize their implicit biases and consider when they come into play, they will let attractiveness, height, weight, outfit choice, clothing fit, clothing label, and hairstyle get in the way. This is, in part, why California and New York City now have “Crown Laws” limiting restrictions on hairstyle, especially where there is a bias against hairstyles traditionally worn by black women and therefore identified as unkempt or unprofessional. These laws are another great way to encourage us to explore our implicit biases related to hairstyles and many other characteristics.
The bottom line is that hiring managers must assess candidates based on their abilities to do the jobs for which they applied, and if certain characteristics are undesired, they must consider why. Is the hairstyle a safety concern? Do clients really care if an employee does a great job but wears a discount suit? Does the suit or hair still look clean and neat? What is it that has us consider some things more professional or appropriate than others?
What has worked for The Law Studio?
I have mostly adapted to our changing world, welcoming the opportunities to explore why I thought certain things were the “right” ones. I relaxed the dress code, allowing employees to dress neatly and forego suits, unless we were going to court. When they are working remotely, they can work in their pajamas, as long as we’re not on a video call and they can get the job done. They can even skip styling their hair and wear baseball caps, if they want.
I’ve learned to embrace the diversity of the employee marketplace and enjoy bringing in workers from a variety of backgrounds and on a range of projects. Especially where my workforce is now almost completely virtual, I can incorporate people from all over the world, if they can do the work effectively. It has helped me deepen my understanding of different cultures, as well as the commonalities among us. What works is continuous exploration and improvement.
What advice do you have for companies and hiring managers?
Just as I hope you are doing at least annually with all procedures, review your job descriptions and hiring processes. Have the jobs changed? What have you learned about what does and doesn’t work? Are there consistent complaints about certain jobs that might hint at the need for change? Is it a people or process issue? If it’s a people issue, would personality profiling and re-training make the difference? If not, would a process change do it?
Often, we are taking the shortcut and blaming or judging a person when there is a wide range of process changes that could be made. This spills into the hiring process, too. We think if we hire people who seem just like us, or who appear to be “good culture fits”, we will have minimal problems. But people are far more complex than that. So, if we focus on the more objective, necessary criteria and training to meet those criteria, we are more likely to: a) avoid discrimination and the claims associated with it and b) hire candidates that not only exceed our expectations but bring ideas and perspectives we might not otherwise have access to. Keep questioning that brain of yours!
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Nance L. Schick, Esq., is a workplace attorney, ethno-religious mediator, and conflict resolution coach based in New York City. Her goal is to keep you out of court and build your conflict resolution skills so everyone has a better work experience. She helps managers and business owners have empowering conversations about emotionally-charged issues such as gender, race, religion, and disability. She is creator of the Third Ear Conflict Resolution process, author of DIY Conflict Resolution, and an award-winning entrepreneur acknowledged by Super Lawyers (ADR, 2018 & 2019), the New York Economic Development Corporation/B-Labs (Finalist, Best for NYC 2015 & 2016), U.S. Chamber of Commerce (2015 Blue Ribbon Small Business), Enterprising Women Magazine (Honorable Mention, 2014 Woman of the Year awards).