Minnesota Cities Magazine

Letter of the Law: Avoiding Unconscious Bias in City Hiring Decisions

By Laura KushnerIllustration: Magnifying glass on a person in line

Racial profiling and unconscious bias have been in the news a lot in recent months, mostly with regard to law enforcement. But unconscious bias is something that can occur in many others areas of city government, including interviewing and hiring.

Managers who are not aware of their own biases can make decisions based on stereotyping without any ill intent and without even knowing they are doing it. This not only has the potential for legal issues, it can keep your city from attracting and retaining qualified employees who are people of color or with disabilities, women in nontraditional roles, and members of many other social groups.

Defining unconscious bias
Most experts define “unconscious bias” as a bias that we are not aware of and which happens outside our control. When applied to social groups, according to Wikipedia, it refers to “the unconscious attribution of particular qualities to a member of a certain social group.” For example, research shows even when both genders have performed a task equally well, people attribute skill to men and luck to women.

Research also shows that, even with identical resumes, applicants with “white-sounding” names (e.g., Emily and Greg) are called for interviews 50 percent more often than those with names that sound African-American (e.g., Lakisha and Jamal). (If you doubt you have unconscious biases, you may want to visit the Project Implicit website at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit, and take one of their online tests.)

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has taken the position that “intentional discrimination includes … conscious or unconscious stereotypes about the abilities, traits, or performance of individuals of certain racial groups.” So while having an unconscious bias in and of itself may not be against the law, it could create problems for those who take employment actions based on it.

Guidelines to avoid discrimination
The EEOC understood this decades ago when they first developed the Uniform Employee Selection Guidelines. The guidelines recognize that a hiring process can result in discrimination, with or without intent. They set up criteria for an organization’s hiring process to avoid discriminatory practices. This includes things like using the same interviewing and testing process for all applicants and ensuring that the testing process meets certain validation criteria.

Some researchers suggest the best approach to avoid discrimination in hiring is to use non-standard methods of decision-making, such as “blind auditions” in which job interviewers do not see (or perhaps even hear) the person being interviewed. Another approach is to use tests related to the tasks the job candidate will have to perform before decision-makers even meet the candidate. This could be done online, using a job-related problem the applicant has to solve.

Some employers remove names and other identifying information from resumes and applications before showing them to hiring managers. Behavioral interviewing (asking questions related to how the applicant handled job assignments in past jobs) is also generally recommended because it focuses on skills, experiences, and competencies rather than resume review.

Training can help
Many employers are turning to unconscious bias training for their managers, based on the argument that you can’t fix something you aren’t even aware you are doing. Usually this training includes exercises that help participants become more aware of their own biases in a non-threatening manner.

Training helps identify triggers that managers use to evaluate applicants that may be based on cultural norms and may have nothing to do with qualifications for the job (firmness of handshake, manner of dress, etc.).

Experts generally recommend setting realistic expectations for the impact of the training, providing multiple sessions, doing the training in-person instead of electronically, and selecting the facilitator carefully.

They also suggest the training should be focused on specific, real-life tasks the learners need to perform on the job. For example, a training session that helps managers understand how their biases might play into job interviewing or resume review is likely to have more impact because it’s a skill managers need to do their jobs effectively and one they can put into practice immediately.

Increase diversity
Employers interested in eliminating unconscious bias generally also see the value of creating a more diverse workforce. By increasing diversity in its own workforce, the employer also increases the number of viewpoints offered and should, over time, decrease the unconscious bias against those groups.

While most, if not all, managers have unconscious biases, those of us who can figure out how to get beyond them are not only avoiding potential lawsuits, we are positioning ourselves to be ready for the workforce of the future.

Laura Kushner is human resources director with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: lkushner@lmc.org or (651) 281-1203.

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