Pop Quiz: When Is Hiring Bias a Good Thing?

When Is Hiring Bias a Good Thing?

If part of your job involves hiring or recruiting, you know personal bias is a sure-fire way to ensure you do not make the right hire, encourage diversity, or nurture innovation.  But what if you could cultivate, instead of negate, personal bias?

Do a quick Google search on “hiring bias,” and you will come up with search results that talk about identifying unconscious bias and removing it from your hiring process in a variety of ways.  There are many resources to help identify bias, and creating blind or skills-based interview processes can help eliminate it.

These are good things—but, sometimes, so is bias.

Understanding bias helps us learn

While some organizations go to great lengths to scrub their recruiting processes of bias, it will never happen.  Bias gone bad can be discriminatory, but bias by itself helps each of us survive in this world.

In a TED talk, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom discusses bias and stereotype.  In discussing the information we each gather on those that we meet, Mr. Bloom notes, “…our ability to stereotype people is not some sort of arbitrary quirk of the mind, but rather it’s a specific instance of a more general process, which is that we have experience with things and people in the world that fall into categories, and we can use our experience to make generalizations about novel instances of these categories.

As humans, we are inclined to develop categories of information and recognize patterns in other people to help us navigate the world, make safe choices, and learn new things.  When we compare new experiences, things, and people with this background of information, our biases help us shape our opinion and actions.

There is an automatic assumption that bias is bad, and that having no bias is good.  This type of black and white thinking is not realistic.  Every human has filters that shape their reaction to new stimuli or people.  It’s a survival mechanism.

In a Harvard Business Review article, the authors discuss why organizations don’t learn.  Interestingly, one of the reasons mentioned is a “bias toward success.”  That bias would be a series of corporate attributes that skews business vision, like:

  • An institutionalized fear of failure
  • “Fixed mindsets” that limit learning
  • Making hiring decisions based on the past, instead of potential
  • Tendency to blame failure on bad luck, instead of personal responsibility

In discussing these limiting features, the authors urge corporations to embrace a “growth mindset” that helps employees “become more aware of opportunities for self-improvement, more willing to embrace challenges, and more likely to persist when they confront obstacles.”

A mindset that encourages and rewards hard work, the development of successful strategies, personal responsibility, and valuing the opinions of others boosts engagement, innovation, and collaboration.

For those in hiring positions, growth occurs from understanding how first impressions come about, what sort of bias is being applied to an applicant, and how the information could lead to broader self-knowledge and better hiring decisions.  Informed decisions made outside of a “fixed mindset,” are more likely to evaluate candidates for their potential, and not just their paper trail.

As Mr. Bloom remarks, “I think prejudice and bias illustrate a fundamental duality of human nature. We have gut feelings, instincts, emotions, and they affect our judgments and our actions for good and for evil, but we are also capable of rational deliberation and intelligent planning, and we can use these to, in some cases, accelerate and nourish our emotions, and in other cases staunch them. And it’s in this way that reason helps us create a better world.”

If we remain in the dark about our personal and corporate biases, our fixed attitude shows.  Regardless of how well a recruiting structure can be designed to defeat bias, unless the hiring manager, recruiter, or HR, is actually taking stock of their own bias, the issue remains.

Bias cannot be eliminated, but cultivating bias for self-growth can translate into better recruiting practices and the kind of hires your company needs for growth and innovation.  When is bias a good thing?  Bias is a good thing when a hard look at bias and stereotyping offers learning opportunities for personal and institutional growth.

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