Bringing unconscious biases into the light

mike_jeffries2Recently I wrote a blog about Mike Jeffries, CEO of Abercrombie and Fitch.  In that blog I shared the remarks Mike made about hiring attractive people and wanting ‘cool’ customers.  In a nutshell, Mike’s the guy who said he only hires good-looking people because good-looking people attract more good-looking people!  Mike inspired me to want to learn more about the influence of attractiveness on the opportunities and challenges people face, particularly in their work life.

Searching for information I came across an article titled ‘Physical Attractiveness Bias in Employee Termination’ by Melissa Commisso and Lisa Finkelstein from the Department of Psychology at Northern Illinois University. Rather than looking at whether attractive people “get the good stuff” like the good job, higher performance ratings, or promotion this study asked whether being physically attractive also protects people from “the bad stuff’ – like being fired.

After viewing a file containing a poor performance review and a badge with a photograph of an extremely attractive, moderately attractive, or unattractive employee participants were asked:

  • if they would terminate the employee
  • to rate how much they liked the employee, and
  • to make a judgment of attribution of her poor performance

NIUThe results are astounding and no doubt concerning to those who place value on fairness and equal opportunity. The study found that participants were more frequently willing to terminate the employment of the unattractive woman than the moderate or extremely attractive women. The participants also indicated that they liked the unattractive woman less than the others. However when asked to rate causes of poor performance no differences were found.

While more information about this particular study is needed in order to draw firm conclusions, it clearly shows the extent to which important decisions can be influenced by unconscious biases.  Just as clear is the gravity of potential impacts on the lives of other people as a consequence of bias we not even realize we hold.  Leaders have a moral obligation to ensure everyone is treated fairly and must therefore take responsibility for the influence of the own biases as well as those they observe in others.

Keen to understand more about how we can overcome the influences of unconscious bias I came across a useful guide from US based consulting firm Cook Ross. Proven Strategies for Addressing Unconscious Bias in the Workplace is a useful resource for anyone looking to understand more about this fascinating topic.  Advice offered by Cook Ross and other commentators in this field can be summarized into these seven key points:

  1. Recognize we all have the potential to be biased
  2. Understand that being aware of our own biases is the first step to being able to mitigate their influence
  3. Take responsibility for the influence of our own biases
  4. Review every aspect of the employment life cycle for hidden bias – screening resumes, interviews, onboarding, performance appraisal, identifying high performers, promotion and termination.
  5. Leverage anonymous surveys to understand what issues of hidden bias and unfairness might exist. Survey current and exiting staff
  6. Provide training that includes examples of hidden bias and forms of unfairness
  7. Provide third-party support in addressing issues of concern
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