Bias: the Achilles’ heel of diversity advancement + 4 things you can do to mitigate bias

Three diverse women sit at a table together working. No instance ofbias.

“Bias is the Achilles’ heel of diversity in most organizations” is a statement that I often repeat when working with organizations as they advance their diversity journey. I say this because even those organizations most ambitious and focused on advancing diversity see that their efforts are not converting to their hoped-for diversity results. And when analyzing the cause, bias is at the heart of the disappointing diversity results.

Bias is the primary reason why, despite diversity goals, the same type of candidate is still selected, leading to the same type of team composition and the same team thinking. Bias leads employees from underrepresented groups to feel disengaged and not being “really seen”. Bias leads to even the most personally committed leaders of diversity unwittingly and unintentionally excluding some members of the organization while including others.

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What is bias?

If diversity is inviting diverse members to play on a team, then bias is in part why some players are not selected, get left on the bench, or are not asked to be part of the starting team for big matches. Being part of a team is not only about being included as a member, but actually getting the chance to play. Where explicit bias or discrimination is the intentional exclusion of talent on the basis of color or gender or background, the most difficult bias to overcome is the implicit or unconscious bias because it is unwitting. And yet organizations and leaders can do a great deal to mitigate unconscious bias. It starts with acknowledging that bias is present and making a commitment to mitigate bias so that talent can thrive in an inclusive environment.

Deep listening skills support leaders listening with their mind, their heart and their will. Most often leaders listen with the intent to confirm what they wish to hear, and so leaders need to be taught to listen in with empathy and with a focus on really hearing what is being said.

Four things you can do to mitigate bias

1. Have leaders educate the organization on why bias is a reality and why it is important to mitigate.

2. Before evaluating a shortlist of candidates, acknowledge that we each bring our cognitive biases into the process. And then mitigate this bias from occurring by:

    • Instituting diverse recruiting panels who have been trained in bias prevention and are aware of their own biases.
    • Following structured interview questions that focus on competency, ruling out questions that are shown to favor in-group bias (e.g. “What is the cultural fit of the candidate to our organization?” or “other comments”) and ruling out bias triggers (e.g. some organizations prefer virtual meetings to remove triggers being activated in face-to-face settings).
    • Submitting evaluations of candidates before discussing the candidate as a group to avoid conformity bias, namely that evaluators tend to take cues from the group versus exercising independent judgment, especially when their own assessment differs from the group direction.

3. Agree that no bias moment occurs without some form of intervention.

Many people are now aware of what constitutes a bias but feel uncomfortable intervening when the bias occurs. “What do I say? When do I say it? How do I support the bias decreasing intervention?”. These three questions are asked most of me and my reply is that organizations need to create the skills around “deep listening” and “courageous discussions”.

    • Deep listening skills support leaders listening with their mind, their heart and their will. Most often leaders listen with the intent to confirm what they wish to hear, and so leaders need to be taught to listen in with empathy and with a focus on really hearing what is being said.
    • Courageous discussions skills support leaders in intervening when a bias occurs in a way that supports respect and learning.

4. Ask for feedback from those that experience the most bias.

It is rare to appreciate the full impact of bias without having experienced it themself. So we need to encourage others to speak up and share their experiences of bias in a safe and respectful environment. This can be accomplished in different ways:

    • Communicating the importance to speak up and creating safe channels through which feedback can be delivered, such as Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Ambassadors, dialogue forums, the ERG (Enterprise Resource Group), or channels that support the person not being identified (in cases where there is a feeling of lack of safety to communicate).
    • Sharing the learnings of the feedback within the organization in a way that respects privacy and acknowledges the courage of providing feedback for communal learning.

“Let’s be open about speaking about this to one another when we think bias is occurring or invite a third party in to observe our discussion and highlight when they see unconscious bias occurring. By repeating such practices over time, teams can become ‘consciously skilled’ and avoid the trap of unconscious bias.” – Kay Formanek, Beyond D&I: Leading Diversity with Purpose and Inclusiveness.

Above all, remember this…

We all are biased and one should not feel guilty for having the bias. However, it is incumbent to learn about them and once having been identified, to take steps every day to mitigate our bias being the cause of someone else not feeling seen or being respected.

A quote to consider

“Understanding how to identify and mitigate bias in an organization is fundamental for diversity to flourish.” – Beyond D&I: Leading Diversity with Purpose and Inclusiveness.

An image to consider

This graphic depicts the difference between equality, equity and real inclusiveness in society. An image is worth a thousand words for it is memorable. We have attempted to support diversity and participation through equality, reflected by each spectator being given an identical box to stand on to watch the sports match. However, this equal allocation of resources (boxes) increases the gap between the spectators, because for some spectators the boxes cannot be used.

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Equity is about fairness – there is recognition of the unique requirements of each spectator so that each person can enjoy the game and have adapted support. Societal inclusiveness occurs when the societal wall of bias and barriers to participation have been removed, allowing all to participate, and not requiring intervention. This state of social inclusiveness should not be regarded as Utopia but as an ambition for society.

This diagram was designed by the artist Arnoud van den Heuvel to bring to life the discussion around equality, equity and societal inclusiveness for the book Beyond D&I: Leading Diversity with Purpose and Inclusiveness, and is an adaption of the diagram by artist Angus Maguire, commissioned by the IISC.

This diversity graphic depicts the difference between equality, equity and real inclusiveness in society.

About the author

Image of Kay Formanek, author and speaker on diversity and bias.Kay Formanek is the author of  Beyond D&I: Leading Diversity with Purpose and Inclusiveness. She is a global speaker on Diversity and Inclusion, visiting lecturer at leading business schools and Founder of Diversity and Performance, which is committed to unleashing the power of Diversity Performance within profit and not-for-profit organizations around the world.

Within this role, Kay offers advisory and research services, including coaching for inclusive and strategic diversity leaders. She has also worked for leading global professional services organizations for over 20 years as Partner and Managing Director, actively supporting their D&I strategy realization.

Her proven approach to leading diversity strategically draws on extensive research and advisory work with over 50 organizations.