Unconscious Bias in Talent Decisions
Why care about unconscious bias in talent decisions?
Discrimination in today’s world is not about harming people, it’s about helping people who fit our preconceptions. For example, your manager may perceive you as a high-potential employee because you fit his or her model of what a high-potential employee looks like. Once you get that high-potential designation, your manager starts perceiving you differently. He or she will try to help you grow through special coaching and mentoring, assign you to special projects, give you additional support to ensure your success, and may even rationalize away your errors and shortcomings. All this help from your manager is great, of course, except for when it’s only awarded to White men. And that’s how unconscious bias can influence talent decisions.
What is Unconscious bias?
Simply put, unconscious bias are stereotypes people don’t know they have (i.e., they are unconscious beliefs). These biases have real world impacts on behavior and develop early on in our lives. For example, in our current research study, it was found that on average, managers are three times more likely to select men as having potential for leadership than women. And when it comes to race, managers are two times more likely to select white men as having leadership potential than Black men. As learned in the previous blog, it is for this reason that the broken rung persists. In order to fix the broken rung permanently, we must first turn our attention to unconscious bias and acknowledge its impact and make an effort to create change.
Given that an overwhelming majority of organizations rely solely on subjective decisions made by management to select future leaders, we tested whether unconscious bias impacted their decisions regarding who shows potential for leadership. Participants were comprised of 328 managers who held mainly midlevel or senior management roles and represented most industries. Harvard’s Project Implicit test was used to assess unconscious bias.
Unconscious bias was seen across all managers, both male and female. When identifying high potential employees, findings showed that male managers are five times more likely to select men than women. Similarly, female managers show the same direction of bias but the bias is weaker in that they are two times more likely to select men than women as high-potentials.
In addition, we studied whether there are disproportionately less women and racial minorities in today’s high-potential programs and on succession plans. Given the almost equal distribution of men and women in the total employee population studied, we would expect the numbers to be equal. However, findings show that there are almost twice as many men than there are women in high-potential programs today. This suggests that unconscious bias in high-potential selection limits women’s access to the special training and resources only made available to high-potential employees. As a result, women often end up being left out and passed over for promotion. For every woman that organizations actively groom for leadership, almost twice as many men are groomed. The same effects can be seen in regards to racial group representation.
Unconscious biases become a self-fulfilling prophecy
Once managers identify a high-potential candidate (because they fit their unconscious bias of what a high-potential employee should look like); they groom them with special coaching and mentoring, put them on highly visible projects, provide additional support, talk about that person with other executives, raise their profile in the company, etc., until others begin to also view that person as a high-potential. This is when that person really become a high-potential employee for the organization and their selves. However, the truth is that there are actually more talented people in the organization who, because of this unconscious bias, will never receive this type of “help” because they don’t look the part. Most commonly, these people are women or racial minorities. And so, managers end up investing in people who’ll never succeed or are mediocre at best and end up leaving great talent on the table. This is not just a diversity issue, but a business imperative to put the most capable people in leadership positions where they can have the greatest impact on the business, employee well-being, and the overall economy.‹ Previous PostNext Post ›