(Reposted from Make HR Happen July 11, 2012)
I should be ashamed of myself. My kids actually believed that I had a pocketful of invisible nose magnets. Every time, without fail, when I would put my hand into my pocket and then extend my hand with the thumb and two fingers together, the dog would run over and sniff my finger. It was as if his nose was drawn by some invisible force to my hand. In fact, that invisible force was the conditioning that he remembered from giving him doggie treats from my pocket on so many occasions. Children have a way of blindly trusting the words of those who feed them even though their growing brains tell them that there is no such thing as invisibility. People can be conditioned just like a dog.
In my article on How to Make a Bad Hire, I discussed several reasons that people make bad decisions during the hiring process. The helicopter view of those issues gives a glimpse into how collective thinking reinforced by live events can condition us to repeat bad behavior. In an air of “do something even if it is wrong” we actually reward bad behavior because the flurry of activity to correct a problem is more obvious and notable than measuring results. Everyone is seduced by their invisible nose magnets to respond even when there is no tangible reward. Thus begins the downward spiral into perpetuation of habit with nobody left standing who can order “stop this foolishness!”
So what are some of the “people treats” that are used to train bad behavior? It would seem to come from an accumulation of biases that taken separately would be seen to be ridiculous. Collectively, they reinforce behavior that cannot easily be put in check.
Names – The drunk at the bar says, “I don’t like you! I knew a guy named Tom and he was a real dirtbag.” Sober people have similar reactions to names and it is so personalized that it is not detectable by the usual diversity obsessed jailhouse lawyers in HR. An old girlfriend’s first name appears at the top of a resume and immediately there is a stirring of hidden bias that can re-tint the hue of the entire interview. If this person is the decision maker or the most influential person in the group it is infectious and quickly spreads without applying logical thought processes.
Nationality – In the United States and in some other places in the world, a somewhat more blatant bias began to creep into management thinking after 9/11. Taking the name-bias to a new level, certain names on the resume would immediately touch some flashpoint that can be fed by paranoia to the point that it can be perceived as excusable even though irrational. The worst part of this invisible bias is the fact that it can be collectively seen to be factual. Whole cultures can be either included or excluded based on bias.
Gender – Everyone is familiar with the glass ceiling and historical discrimination against women in the workplace, but that is not the extent of this invisibility cloak. Circulate a job posting for an administrative assistant and the ratio of female to male applicants is staggering. Fairness would dictate that the male applicants would be given equal opportunity, but that is not reality. Among all the chatter about average pay for women being lower than men, we perpetuate the status quo by invisibly reserving traditionally lower paying jobs for women.
Race – There is racial prejudice in every part of the world. In some countries, race can actually be a prerequisite for determining citizenship. In the US we have invented new categories of so-called race to define buckets of people that are considered to be a minority and have tasked recruiters to report on these buckets through some sort of clairvoyant telepathic ability. Thanks a lot for that! Race is to be transparent in the decision process, but we are forced to not only to notice but report the outcome. If it were not so then it is assumed that everybody would succumb to making decisions based on race. Unfortunately, it is impossible to legislate morality. Bad decisions using these invisible nose magnets will live on.
Age – Generational cohorts of people band together as a defensive mechanism against perceived bias and thereby create new bias in their favor. This is the same illogical thought process that forces non-conformists to conform to their own norms. Some of this is psychologically taking the parent/child relationship a step further and by transference relating everybody older or younger than ourselves as that stereotypical parent or child. Proof that this nose magnet is a pervasive part of our lives is the number of groups, websites and articles defending some particular group against some other group. Reinforcing the differences by analysis alone keeps the bias alive.
Appearance – The best is saved for last. It is a known fact that personal characteristics such as weight and height influence decision making. Institutions have tried to impose arbitrary standards of BMI as a condition of employment. One comment on the article The Three Essential Key Elements for a Great Hire revealed that one woman was not selected for a position on the basis that she reminded the hiring manager of her ex-husband’s new wife. Check the list of Fortune 500 CEOs and you will not find one picture of an unattractive person. So, if the appearance invisible-nose-magnet lures decision makers, then don’t apply to a job if you are butt-ugly because you will lose out to a more attractive person.
Before you begin challenging these statements as going contrary to correct and proper thinking, the real purpose of pointing out these anomalies is to highlight unconscious bias that undermines diversity. Diversity of thought is as important as other sacred business relics which means we have to know which thoughts are hidden and how to overcome them. It is not an effort that can be policed by authority…except for the one that lives inside of each of us.
Image credit: Dog blackcurrent1 / 123RF Stock Photo