Workforce Bias By Any Other Name Is Still…

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“If they had funny names,” she said casually, “I would put them at the bottom of the resume pile.”


We were making our way down a flight of steps, eagerly heading toward our now habitual lunch time together. I was glad she was ahead of me. I had to stop to catch my breath, and to hold the weight of her words.

“Wendy” (not her real name) and I met a few weeks earlier as we on-boarded into a new company. Between bites, she mentioned having a background in HR. She was a little older than me and had a few jobs under her belt. I was fresh out of college and had no “real” experience to speak of yet. But absent that professional experience, I had enough common sense to know something was deeply problematic about her words, our interaction, and the moment. That day, I wondered if she’d forgotten I had a “funny” name too. I also wondered why we were spending time together. No matter. I was just grateful my resume had not been reliant on her review.

In the candidate selection process, a name matters. Names that are “ethnic” sounding can easily be weaponized when they land in the wrong hands. A 2017 Harvard Business Review article found that, “Since 1990 white applicants received, on average, 36% more callbacks than black applicants and 24% more callbacks than Latino applicants with identical resumes.” Asian applicants also had low callback rates. These disparities are as true of companies that lift diversity as an organizational value as those that don’t. The common theme between them? The presence of biased infrastructures and the absence of mechanisms to identify, interrupt, and dismantle them.

What’s an employer to do? Employ Three Key Bias Interrupters!

1.     Understand that if you have human beings in your organization, you have organizational bias. It’s important to accept this is the case so that you can address the issue. Not doing so is akin to an individual saying, “I don’t see color.” It is untrue and unproductive.

2.     Commit to de-biasing your organization by conducting a candid review of your practices, polices and programs. And because this requires a strong degree of self-awareness that is difficult to attain, enlist expert help to do so. Your Chief Diversity Officer or an external partner or consultant can help. NOTE: While you can and should engage your diverse employees in this process (after all, their lived experience is a good gauge of inclusion in your culture), they cannot carry the burden of identifying and solutioning for you unless this is in the scope of their job or they raise a hand to do so. To place the weight of this work squarely on their shoulders is not good practice (trust me–in the last few weeks, People of Color, especially, have been lifted as organizational saviors to help companies create anti-racist practices in considerably problematic ways).

Beware the mindset of those who hold the keys to your organizational doors–it matters!

3.     Ensure that who you have entrusted to be the portal to your organization’s front door (more on management and promotion later) is an inclusive bridge-builder and not a gatekeeper committed to maintaining a non-diverse, inequitable, status quo.

How do you do it? To be clear, this is challenging, time-consuming work. Holding a mirror up to yourself and acknowledging what is there can be challenging. But not as challenging as having a workforce that lacks diversity, equity and inclusion. And not because the talent doesn’t exist (believe me, this is likely NOT the real issue at hand) but because you have entrusted the process of recruiting, hiring, retaining, and promoting to individuals who either lack an inclusion competency by default (they do not have the tools to understand and interrupt their own bias) or by design (decidedly against building inclusion). Note that I am not calling out HR practitioners. I am speaking specifically about anyone in your organization charged with recruiting, screening, interviewing and ultimately hiring candidates. Often, biased decisions are made in a continuum and the pool becomes more narrow and less diverse with each set of eyes and values it funnels through unless inclusive attention and accountability are deeply embedded in the process and supported at every step of the way–from where you post the job to how you ultimately make an offer. Everyone plays a role in this process–including those who, at a high level, see the results of your workforce’s diversity and are not paying close attention to disparities (gender, pay equity, age, sexual orientation, race, ability, etc.)

“We tried, but there just isn’t a diverse talent pool for (insert job here).”

It’s important to remember that the presence of a biased infrastructure and pronounced support for specific individuals of diverse backgrounds can often appear to co-exist seamlessly in an organization, creating the appearance of inclusion. When you see a few people of color, for instance, who appear to thrive in an organization, it is possible that they have “made it” not because the pathway was seamless and solely based on competence but because they managed to overcome persistent barriers centered on their difference. Here’s an overly simplistic question to begin to frame your thinking. If there is only one person of difference in your leadership ranks—why is she/he the only one? Worse yet, if no one is there, what is it about your environment’s design that has rendered it so lacking in diversity? And, for the record, if your answer is “there simply isn’t that kind of diverse talent out there,” you have even more work to do.

Years later, I would come to understand why “Wendy” felt comfortable telling me she de-prioritized resumes with “funny” names while spending all of her free time with me during our training. An individual can like a very specific person and still actively work against the community he/she/they represent consciously or unconsciously. Often, they might tell themselves, “she’s not like the rest of them,” and fail to understand the deep-seeded bias inherent in that statement.

Placing a candidate at the bottom of a resume pile because his name is difficult to pronounce is a biased decision. Today, more than ever, there’s nothing “funny” about that. If it’s happened in your organization, roll up your sleeves, put on your inclusion lens and commit to figuring out where your gaps are. Chances are, someone–maybe “Workforce Wendy”–is bolting your front door shut and leaving exceptional talent behind.

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