Nassim Abdi
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If you were on the internet in 2018, you’re likely familiar with THE Starbucks discrimination scandal that rocked the corporate world. If you haven’t heard, here’s a quick recap: two men walked into a Philadelphia Starbucks and were arrested for allegedly trespassing. The men, both of whom are Black, were waiting for a business partner to arrive for a meeting and one of them tried to use the restroom. The manager — assuming that the men weren’t paying customers and just wanted to use the bathroom for free — summoned authorities. Within minutes, six police officers were on the scene. What followed was a PR disaster for Starbucks that involved a bungled public apology and forced the CEO to issue his own statement. 

Implicit bias discrimination impacts every company, from your nearest coffee shop to your own company culture. Implicit biases are especially harmful to companies’ recruiting processes, as they control who enters the team. This leads to a lack of diverse voices, ones that could shape the whole process from the beginning — only further entrenching these biases into your entire organizational culture. 

In my work with company leaders, I often encounter corporate and HR leaders who want to remove biases from the interview process. Naturally, we want to avoid being offensive in our hiring and interview process; but we may not even be aware of our biases. In order to avoid accidental discrimination in interviews, we must first understand what our implicit biases are. This way we can center ourselves from a place of empathy. 

How to identify your implicit biases.

“Implicit bias” may sound like a shameful term, but in fact, it’s a completely natural defense mechanism. Over millions of years of evolution, the human brain developed survival instincts to make split-second assessments that categorize our experiences, help us understand situations, determine how we feel about others, and to decide whether or not to take action. That intuition is often responsible for our implicit biases today. 

From childhood, we absorb and develop meaning about the world from others around us and from culture at large. As we take in this information, we categorize it neatly into buckets, or implicit biases. We rely on these biases in every facet of our lives, from the macro: deciding where to live or choosing a life partner, to the micro: deciding where to eat lunch or whether to make small talk with a stranger. 

While our instinctual preferences may seem natural, implicit biases actually present a deterrent to developing inclusive workplaces, interviews, performance reviews, and in recruiting efforts. Most of the time, we don’t even know that the comments we make and the questions we ask are based on our own biases.  

Common implicit biases during the recruiting process.

1. Stereotypes.

Whether based on race, gender, age, religion, disability or sexuality, an interviewer’s stereotypical biases about a candidate’s background or capabilities can hinder or harm that candidate’s eligibility for a position. All recruiters know that asking job applicants about their age, medical conditions (i.e. whether they’re pregnant) and country of origin is absolutely off-limits. However, this fact does not stop skilled recruiters from parsing these details out, often unwittingly while using their own implicit biases. 

2. Accent, dialect and language bias.

Non-native English speakers may be used to hearing “compliments” like, “Wow, your English is so good! Where are you from, again?” Strong accents can also lead to negative biases, such as the candidate not being taken seriously.

3. Halo effect.

This happens when one particular positive characteristic of a candidate, say, their Ivy League education, gives them a “Halo” and biases the interviewer that their qualities are more positive than expected.  

4. Horn effect.

When one particular negative characteristic of a candidate, say, a low GPA, biases the interview against the candidate and negates the rest of the candidate’s achievements.

Even if not spoken aloud, these types of implicit biases come up frequently during the hiring process for interviewers. If left unchecked, these implicit biases can be quite harmful to teams, companies and corporations seeking to bring more diversity and inclusion into their workplaces.

So, how do we avoid it? 

Ways to truly face and avoid implicit biases.

1. Avoid making the interview process closed by having frequent, candid conversations with your team.

Even the most talented interviewers are subject to implicit biases. At StoryBolt, we hold empathy and the creation of empathy as one of our foundational values. We believe that everyone at a company should feel comfortable and empowered to connect with empathy and compassion for one another. 

Being open to talk about our own implicit biases is a meaningful display of empathy and vulnerability. It changes the impact of whatever issue is at hand and makes it more approachable for you, as well as the person who received the bias. Candid exchanges lower defensive barriers and get you closer to actually resolving issues and helping achieve organizational diversity.

Keep the lines of communication open between the interviewer and the team at large. Approach conversations not as “the elephant in the room”, but as open and non-judgemental learning opportunities. Some ways you can do this is by: 

  • Recording or transcribing your interview sessions to discuss with the team later on.
  • Standardizing interview questions that the team contributes. 
  • Consider leaving the final decision process up to a vote.
  • Attend and host regular training sessions on empathy and implicit biases.

2. During interviews, pause to recognize what biases you are facing.

The next step is to dig down and sort out how to really chew it. I always stress with clients that implicit bias is very different from being racist. It doesn’t mean that someone is a bad person or that they should feel self-conscious. It just means that their brain created categories for information based on their environment, culture and media portrayals. All of that creates the fog that we tackle through training. We have to train ourselves to pause and self-assess before moving forward. Are there any immediate judgments you find yourself making in your assessment of a potential candidate? Ask yourself, “What are my biases?” and “How am I letting my feelings drive my decision making?” 

3. Ultimately, remember that empathy offers the core antidote to implicit biases.

In the work I do with my company StoryBolt, we train corporate leadership and employees to build more inclusive workplaces using our Mpathi™ methodology that helps build empathy using film and guided, non-confrontational dialogue. Whether we are called to help with issues of racial bias, LGBTQ+ discrimination or implicit bias in the interview process, the work we do with teams reveals a common lesson: that the work we do is just the beginning for that team, but it is the most important foundational step. 

Leading and communicating the end goal of empathy orients workplaces in a manner that incentivizes teams to seek out education on and to openly discuss implicit biases. Systemic empathy encourages individuals to also lead with empathy.

While I cannot possibly address every single scenario of interview bias in one article, if you are the person responsible for choosing others to join your team, I urge you to actively continue educating yourself on ways to approach interviews with empathy. Your implicit biases have a direct impact on the work culture you are creating, and it will be a lifelong (and worthwhile) pursuit to understand and acknowledge them.

What’s your no. 1 piece of advice for avoiding bias in an interview? Share your answer in the comments to help other Fairygodboss'ers!

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This article was written by a Fairygodboss Contributor. 

Nassim Abdi, PhD is the award-winning founder of StoryBolt, a corporate inclusion training company with a radically innovative and science-backed approach to inspiring empathy and building more inclusive workspaces. An educator, actor, storyteller, and inclusion evangelist, Nassim has adapted her decades of experience into training businesses how to model empathetic leadership and build inclusive workplace environments. Her novel active learning Mpathi™ methodology is trusted by Google Cloud, Brad's Deals, and many more.

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