Down With Bias, Up With Profitability

Too many founders/CEO’s are dismissing the data. To the rescue: Joelle Emerson and the team at Paradigm, guiding us on how to fight the unconscious demons within.

Obvious |
Illustrations by Michael Marsicano

While study after study demonstrate that more inclusive companies outperform their peers financially, practices to diversify company workforces remain in their nascency. Startup CEO’s and Fortune 500 executives continue to ignore the data at their own peril, de-prioritizing or dismissing entirely bias mitigation strategies as “fluffy” or “nice-to-have-but-not-need-to-have.”

This is especially pertinent on the front lines of talent, with our unconscious bias working against us at every turn. Yes, even you madame/sir reader fall prey to this on a regular basis.

A bit of context: At any given moment, our brains are receiving 11 million pieces of information. We can only consciously process about 40 of those pieces*, and to process the remaining 10,999,960 we rely on our subconscious. While unconscious information processing is a critical part of human functioning, the shortcuts we take, and the bias that informs those shortcuts, often introduce errors into our decision-making**. This unconscious bias can lead to bad business decisions — especially the way we attract, hire, develop and retain people from underrepresented groups***.

For Joelle Emerson, this became a calling. Having served as a women’s rights attorney with the likes of Equal Rights Advocates, the National Women’s Law Center, and as a Skadden Fellow, she ran into the outcomes of these “bad business decisions” on a daily basis.

“I felt frustrated that I wasn’t attacking the root of the problem,” she said. “I was only present after something had gone wrong. How could I take a more proactive approach? What would that work look like?”

So in fall 2014 Joelle started Paradigm specifically to help create more inclusive companies, now counting the likes of Asana, Slack, Twitter, Pinterest, and Airbnb as clients. [They’re not alone: Investors like Mitch & Freada Kapor have been at it for years. Others like Hunter Walk at Homebrew are also singing the data-driven gospel, suggesting “it’s never too early to think about how to create a diverse and inclusive workforce” — and producing their own guides.]

Joelle and the Paradigm team have a number of suggested strategies to share, some of which I (liberally) adapted from a white paper of theirs, below.

“Companies that want to effectively cultivate diverse, inclusive organizations should work to manage bias both at the structural level, in company processes and policies, and at an individual level in employee attitudes and behaviors. They should do this with a consideration of the entire employee experience — from how they attract and hire to how they develop and retain.”


Structural Strategies

  • Upgrade your career site. You know you need to. Companies should review their career sites and make updates to depict a culture that is inclusive and welcoming to all candidates. Pro Tip: Include photos of employees from different backgrounds, highlight inclusive perks/benefits, and explicitly reference that the company values a diverse, inclusive culture.
  • While you’re at it, upgrade those job descriptions as well. Review job descriptions for problematic language and create guidelines for future descriptions. Gendered language like “rock star” and words like “direct” or “lead” drive more men to apply. Also, descriptions that use growth mindset terms (e.g. learning, growth, development) attract more women, while those orienting fixed mindset (innate abilities, traits) attract more men. Pro Tip: Check out Textio, a tool to run job descriptions through to determine how appealing your description is to men/women.
  • Source candidates from outside of the company’s referral network. Given that referral candidates are rarely diverse, companies should minimize the extent to which they prioritize referrals over other candidates, and should engage in active sourcing efforts to identify candidates outside of their own networks. Pro Tip: Consider the demographics of the colleges and conferences you’re recruiting from. Even for small companies, just asking employees to think of candidates from underrepresented backgrounds can help.
  • Cultivate careers of employees from underrepresented backgrounds. Consciously and actively supporting the careers of employees from underrepresented backgrounds will send a message to potential applicants that yours is a company where everyone is included and has the opportunity to succeed. Pro Tip: Encouraging employees from underrepresented backgrounds to speak on public panels and develop their public profiles can help communicate to the community that all employees are valued and empowered.

Individual Strategies

  • Encourage employees to diversify their networks and refer diverse candidates. Encouraging employees to diversify their personal networks fosters a more diverse pool of potential referrals. Pro Tip: Explicitly asking for referrals of people from underrepresented backgrounds can prompt employees to think about the great people they’ve worked with who would add diversity to the team.
  • Walk the walk with how to talk…about diversity. Because candidates’ first impressions about a company often arise through interactions with current employees, having a workforce that understands and is able to talk about diversity is important.
  • Create cultural conditions to call it out. Creating and maintaining a company culture that is attractive to a wide range of candidates is something all employees should take part in. Employees are stewards of the culture, and should be empowered to notice and call out subtle messages that could be deterring certain candidates (e.g., in job postings, at recruiting events).

II. Hiring

Structural Strategies

  • What are we screening for? Before beginning an interview process, the team responsible for the hiring decision should meet to outline and discuss all attributes that matter for that role, and determine who will be assessing for each attribute. Pro Tip: To minimize cognitive load and reduce reliance on mental shortcuts, interviewers should be assigned to assess specific attributes during an interview, and they should be encouraged to provide roughly the same amount of feedback for all candidates.
  • Define the undefinable: culture fit. Culture fit interviews, like all interviews, can be less biased when they are designed to assess for specific, predetermined factors that are relevant to the job (e.g., the candidate is collaborative, likes taking on challenges, is comfortable with a quickly changing environment).
  • Design interview questions to identify these attributes. Each interview question should be designed to assess for an attribute that is important for the role. This helps eliminate irrelevant and potentially biased questions. Pro Tip: All candidates interviewing for a particular role should be asked the same questions.
  • Yes, develop (and use) a rubric. Developing a rubric to define what great answers, decent answers, and poor answers look like for each question ensures that all candidates are held to the same standard. In addition to minimizing bias, this type of structured process has been shown to produce the most effective hiring decisions.

Individual Strategies

  • Hold up a mirror. Training employees to recognize bias and understand its negative impact on interviewing and hiring can remind them to question their assumptions, slow down, and seek out additional information when making decisions.
  • Keep it top of mind. While an effective unconscious bias training can spark engagement around bias minimization strategies, timely reminders reinforce the importance of minimizing bias in decision making and help employees remember to engage in efforts to reduce bias. Pro Tip: Setting a calendar alert to remind interviewers of common biases before an interview, or including reminders about bias on candidate feedback forms, are examples of strategies that keep bias, and the importance of minimizing it, top of mind.

III. Developing

Structural strategies

  • Structure evaluations and promotions. Adding structure to these processes produces fairer and more objective outcomes. Pro Tip: Developing job level expectations and rubrics for assessing performance minimizes bias; it also makes these processes easier and produces better outcomes overall.
  • Check yourselves. Monitoring for bias allows a company to identify and address disparities quickly. For example, one Paradigm client observed that women were less likely to nominate themselves for promotion than men, resulting in a lower promotion rate. In response, the company redesigned the process to encourage managers to be involved in self-nomination decisions and reduce the hesitation that led female employees to under-self-promote.
  • Balance the career-development scales. Because bias can lead to better mentoring and development opportunities for majority group members, programs aimed at developing employees from underrepresented backgrounds can help close that gap and ensure that all employees have access to the resources and opportunities they need to succeed.

Individual strategies

  • Hold up the mirror, again. Because employees play a key role in reviewing performance and making promotion decisions, it is important to educate employees about common biases, like those that lead us to hold different people to different standards.
  • Networking and mentoring, inside and outside the company. This can help mitigate the extent to which informal relationships overly and unfairly benefit employees who are part of the majority group, while giving employees greater access to counter-stereotypical information (e.g., members of underrepresented groups in leadership roles). A 2007 study found that individuals exposed to counter-stereotypical information are less likely to demonstrate bias in decision making.

IV. Retaining

Structural Strategies

  • Check the company’s pulse. Employee surveys offer a great opportunity to monitor culture and identify potential issues around employee perceptions of inclusiveness or fairness. Asking questions about employees’ perceptions, and their intent to stay at the company, give companies an idea of where they stand and where they should seek to improve. Survey results are particularly instructive when broken down by demographic groups, which allows companies compare the experience of diverse and majority-group employees.
  • Monitor pay outcomes. Regularly reviewing pay across the organization can help avoid bias and ensure equity. Pro Tip: Reviewing compensation policies and monitoring for bias at each stage in compensation-setting is helpful for uncovering the source of inequities, if they do exist.
  • Craft benefits that work for all. This can be as simple as having a feedback loop for employees. Many larger tech companies formally meet with members of diverse groups to ensure that internal policies are meeting their needs, a practice that led Google to lead the industry in transgender benefits starting in 2011.

Individual strategies

  • Educate, educate, educate. Increasing awareness of bias and arming employees with the skills and confidence to call out bias when they see it is important. Pro Tip: Being thoughtful about the physical workspace — for example, removing posters that could be offensive to colleagues or planning events that are enjoyable for all team members — is another important step all employees can take to create a more inclusive environment.
  • All hands on deck. Creating an inclusive culture depends on the behavior of individual employees. Engaging employees in company diversity efforts sends the message that building a diverse, inclusive organization is everyone’s responsibility.