Diversity In Recruiting – bias in the workplace

Feb 1, 2004

“A bias is an inflexible positive or negative prejudgment about the nature, character, and abilities of an individual and is based on a generalized idea about the group to which the person belongs.”

This month I want to tell you about Making Diversity Work: Seven Steps for Defeating Bias in the Workplace, by Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D. (Dearborn Trade Publishing, 30 South Wacker Drive, Suite 2500, Chicago, IL 60606-7481, 800-245-2665,

“Bias is sapping American business of time, energy, and in the end, money.” The price of bias covers a lot of bases:

  1. Litigation: discrimination suits are every executive’s nightmare
  2. Lost employees: both the hidden and direct costs of losing good employees are shockingly high
  3. Diminished sales and lost customers
  4. Wasted time: managers throw away dozens of hours each year mediating bias-related conflicts.

Making Diversity Work is concerned with the subtler form of bias “the ones held by otherwise nice people (that’s you and me and most of the folks we know) and that are insidious in the harm they do to our workplaces, our communities, and ourselves.” The author, Sondra Thiederman, makes it clear that biases are attitudes not behaviors. She gives us many examples and real life experiences that you will recognize. She doesn’t try to redress the sins of the past; she is more interested in defining bias reduction tools for today and tomorrow. The Mayor of Boston, Thomas Menino, at a recent diversity breakfast, made a similar statement about conditions in Boston, “Don’t let the scars of the past cloud the future.”

Thiederman’s thesis and mantra are clear: bias busting can be done. “We are, after all, not born biased. There is no genetic predisposition to bias, no bias gene rides on our chromosomes, there is no DNA test that can identify who is biased and who is not. Bias is learned. It is an acquired habit of thought rooted in fear and fueled by conditioning.”

“Biases are learned from our parents, from the media, and from positive and negative experiences. Although blatant messages of bias are dangerous, the subtle and ambiguous ones are often the most difficult to resist and cure. This is because they can be almost impossible to identify. Once biases are learned, the culture as a whole plays a role in helping them thrive. This is particularly true of those cultures in which biased attitudes are tolerated. Because toleration perpetuates bias, it is important that these attitudes be corrected no matter who holds them.”

Thiederman says that it seems as if human beings are afflicted with an immune deficiency when it comes to the bias bug. “The bias virus is remarkably hardy.” She proposes that the heart of the healing process for the bias virus is The Vision Renewal Process, a seven step process designed to “help you become aware of your biases and guide you step-by-step through the stages of ridding yourself of their influence.” I’ll list the steps and comment on three of them:

1. Become mindful of your biases

2. Identify the alleged benefits of your biases

3. Put your biases through triage: which of my biases should I work on first?

4. Dissect your biases.

5. Identify Common Kinship Groups

6. Shove your biases aside

7. Beware the bias revival.

Thiederman introduces becoming mindful of your biases with a reaction to a quote from Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground:

Every man has reminiscences which he would not tell to everyone but only his friends. He has other matters in his mind which he would not reveal even to his friends, but only to himself and that in secret. But there are other things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself, and every decent man has a number of such things stored away in his mind.

Thiederman’s reaction:

One category of Dostoyevsky’s sequestered things is our biases, or secret beliefs of how we feel about other groups of people. I agree with Dostoyevsky that fear is the primary cause of this secrecy. The fear that prevents us from admitting bias is that of having to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we may not be quite as nice as we, and others, like to think we are.

In Step Three, Put Your Biases Through Triage, Thiederman examines a truism and prescribes a course of action: “Everybody has biases: big ones, small ones, destructive ones, (almost) harmless ones. We need to aim our guns at the biases that do the most damage. In short, pick your fights.”

Step Five describes identifying our common kinship groups and reminds the reader: “the more ‘we‘ we can muster, the more commonness we can find between ourselves and other kinship groups, the more positive we will feel about them.” Last week in the waiting room of a VA hospital a black fellow patient and I struck up a conversation. When he told me that he served in the 82nd Airborne Division, I said: “You look too intelligent to have been in the 82nd.” He responded in a millisecond: “You have to be one of those nuts from the 101st!” Two strangers, different races, share the paratrooper commonness.

Part Three, Gateway Events: Entering Diversity Dialogue, opens with some straightforward advice and an unforgettable phrase. “We must begin carrying on conversations about bias because conversation is our most powerful weapon against the fear and misunderstanding that surround us; it is also the most powerful tool we have for fighting bias. It is time we risk hurt feelings, discomfort, and even anger.” Thiederman laments: “there is a crisis in courage when it comes to bias.” The phrase that I will remember is “diversity is a contact sport.”

Some examples of ‘gateway events’ include:

  • Perhaps you witness an act of bias against a friend, acquaintance, or colleague or hear an inappropriate joke or comment
  • Maybe someone falsely accuses you of bias
  • Perhaps you say or do something that inadvertently offends someone
  • Maybe you witness someone else being falsely accused of bias
  • Perhaps you say or do something involving diversity that you immediately regret.

Thiederman forces us to face a few facts:

  • The responsibility for stifling the spread of bias rests on each of us and our main method for achieving this goal is conversation.
  • What we accept is what we teach.
  • We have to name the fear that prevents us from dialoguing effectively.
  • The three R’s, resist, remember, rethink, sum up what our initial reaction should be to any gateway event.
  • Avoid dogmatic or absolute statements in the heat of a gateway event.
  • Lowering the volume of both tone and words increases interest in what we have to say, maximizes credibility, and minimizes resistance to our message.
  • Listening attentively and openly is perhaps the single most important aspect of dialoguing about diversity.

The book is not always a pleasant and easy read. Treading lightly is not Thiederman’s forte. She makes some unwavering arguments; after all, bias reduction is her life’s work. Pointing out the way to diminish our fundamental attitudes that generate inappropriate behavior is no easy task. One of her objectives in writing the book is to provide the tools to make examining our biases less threatening and, therefore, more productive. She believes that if “we have a firm sense of our identity and worth; we are not threatened by new ideas, fresh values, and unfamiliar ways of doing things.”

Thiederman has staunch opinions. You don’t have to guess where she stands on the issues. She makes her points with courage and conviction. She deals with an uncomfortable subject, tells us what we have to hear in unequivocal terms, and cautions us that biases interfere with our abilities. She challenges us to get rid of our biases and challenges corporate America to make diversity work.

Thiederman gives real world, real time illustrations and vignettes that teach and provide hope. Her stories are about people we all know; every now and again she hits you right between the eyes with candor that strikes pretty close to home. Her strategies are constructive and make effective use of her experience and her engaging sense of humor. Her strong convictions give her the fortitude to ask us to examine our conscience, be honest, and work to ferret out our biases.

I learned from Making Diversity Work. I enjoyed the way she builds her case with stories, sometimes humorous, other times embarrassing but always true to life like parables. I added quite a few quotations to my database; quotes that I will remember and use. Some of them are in the article above; others include:

  • We need to go after those biases that either cause pain or interfere with our ability to function successfully.
  • Generally, those who have few biases tend to be fairly indifferent to whether or not a person is diverse.
  • Denying a difference, when it is pertinent to the situation, suggests that we feel there is something wrong with that difference.
  • The biggest obstacle to making diversity work is the biases that exist consciously or unconsciously in the organization.
  • Making diversity work is an individual responsibility.
  • Diversity is a contact sport.

Personal note: In January I returned to diversity recruiting after a three-year hiatus by joining The Corporate Source Group ( CSG has offices in seven states and my role is leading their diversity practice.

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