Paying bias forward


I am biased.

While I like to think that I am aware of my own biases and able to reign them in when they arise, I'm not sure that's always the case. When I am aware of them, I rarely express them out loud, and I may even partake in a little self-justification. But what I also conveniently overlook is that I am guilty of paying bias forward. Of surreptitiously accepting another’s bias and passing it onto someone else.

Most of us would be familiar with the subtle phrases in recruitment like 'must be on an upward career trajectory', 'looking for someone young and energetic' or the use of the 'he', 'she' or 'just like me' descriptors. Then there are the direct statements like 'I don't want anyone over 50' or 'I don't want anyone with kids' that are often a quick verbal side note expressed in a sometimes shockingly unapologetic way. Recruitment briefs start out well, with capability and cultural fit or flex for the role discussed and a wish list of qualifications and experience put together. But then, often as a casual side comment, there comes the other stuff. The stuff that shouldn't and doesn't matter. The bias.

If we scratch the surface of branded diversity statements, industry awards and inclusion policies, bias most often appears in casual conversation. It's not in the employer branding, the position description or the interview questions. But it's there, casually hanging around in the background having a significant influence on our decisions.

I am guilty of paying bias forward. Of being a messenger. I have done it mostly to make the recruitment process as quick and easy as possible. Because I knew that at the end of the day the decision maker would be unlikely to change their thinking. Because I couldn't find the language to start, what could be, a difficult conversation.

But I have also refused to pay bias forward and had those difficult conversations. Granted, the results have been mixed. Some have experienced a light bulb moment of recognition, others have justified their views with well thought out, but ridiculously flawed, reasoning. But regardless of the outcome, it was the nudging that mattered. The decision not to pay bias forward.

Bias can be ugly, but it's also human and that's why empathy is key to any change. Most of us know what it feels like to be judged unfairly. That feeling we get when it happens to us is what we need to channel. But we also need to be able to step into the shoes of the person being biased. Why are they thinking this way? Are they aware of the bias? Is it learned? Is our culture driving it? Either way, directly attacking them for their views will do nothing but build up a wall of defensive miscommunication.

So next time you are asked to pay bias forward, stop ... and consider your options. Because the messages you choose to pass on, however casual, may have a bigger impact on championing diversity and inclusion than you think.

First published 2017

Image by Pepe Reyes on Unsplash