The scariest moments in a horror movie is when we can see something about to happen that the protagonists can’t see. They aren’t even aware of the danger and therefore they can’t respond to it. Bias is like that. If we are not aware of how it can sneak into our organizations, we can’t respond to it. The truth is that bias is already lurking inside our organizations — and inside ourselves. If we know where to look, we will be much better prepared to respond to the danger.
There are so many practices that are inherently biased. If we are not actively working to see and change these practices, we will replicate inequity. Let’s look at a few places to start looking for bias.
Bias can sneak in on a seemingly simple statement like "We hire the best person for the job." But how do you define “best”? Too often it means that organizations automatically require a college degree for every position (and the better the school, the better the candidate), the most outgoing candidate, someone who has had this exact job, someone who interviews well, etc. If this mimics your definition of “best,” then you are hiring with a bias toward the dominant culture. Bias also sneaks in through personal preferences. Without being aware of it, we are drawn to candidates who are like us, in some way or another.
Every person who sits on a hiring committee must be trained in legal parameters for hiring as well as learning how to disrupt implicit bias. Make it an active practice to catch your own, and other’s potentially biased questions, assumptions and choice. Make it safe to question each other.
Unspoken, and often unrecognized, assumptions about who has skills and merit can impact compensation decisions. Bias can lead us to assume that if people made a lower wage previously, then they probably deserve a lower wage now. Many states have outlawed the practice of basing a person’s salary on their past salary. A job should be analyzed and assigned a range based on the job itself, not the candidate. And once an initial salary has been determined, percent-based raises just perpetuate the inequity.
One of the most dangerous areas for bias to sneak into an organization is through inconsistent and unconscious supervision practices. The assumptions that managers make about who people are and how they are going to perform can lead to them treating people differently — often inadvertently. They might be less accessible to some people or challenge staff members of color by asking more questions or monitoring their work more closely.
Even the words we use to describe some employment qualities can be fraught with white supremacy values. Concepts such as “common sense,” “professionalism” and “work ethic” all sound like neutral words but actually come drenched in mainstream judgment. People who have different understandings of those words or see those words as triggers and racial judgments can be set up to fail.
Who is mentored? Who is given the challenging assignments that will be highlighted when they seek a promotion? Who are the people selected to attend conferences, leadership programs or external meetings? If these decisions are simply left up to individual managers, then it could lead to the same people getting the attention, the promotions and the connections that set them up for life.
Supervisors need to be trained not only in bias but in effective supervision practices and there needs to be organization-wide standards of supervision. When managers choose to lift up people with the same identity over and over then those decisions need to be questioned.
When the culture of an organization does not clearly respond to acts of bias, it sends a clear message that any statements to the contrary, or bias, is tolerated. For example, if you provide training in bias but then someone makes micro-aggressive comments and nothing happens, then you have undermined your own training. When the culture reinforces dominant practices by celebrating Christmas and ignoring Ramadan, then bias is at work. It isn’t just in formal practices either. Bias can show up when no one acknowledges a queer person’s partner but staff ask about straight partners. Or, when a trans person talks about their hormones and the conversation grinds to a halt, even if the conversation had been about menopausal hormones. That is a clear message about what is OK to talk about and what is not.
Never forget that bias is a sneaky practice — and a clear and present danger. It is pushing people out the door to find a more inclusive (and safe) work environment.
Rita Sever brings a unified approach to human resources and organizational development. Rita offers training, consulting and coaching through her business, Supervision Matters. She works with individuals, teams, leaders and the entire agency to improve the culture and practice of supervision, helping individuals and organizations thrive and fulfill their mission.
Rita has an Master's of Arts in organizational psychology. She has worked in and with nonprofits for more than 30 years and has taught “HR in Nonprofits” at the University of San Francisco and Sonoma State University in California.
Rita’s newest book is entitled "Leading for Justice: Supervision, HR and Culture."