How can organisations debias their decisions?

Dr Karen Morley

Dr Karen Morley is a distinguished executive coach, an authority on leadership coaching and a thought leader on inclusive leadership. She is the author of FlexAbility: How high achievers beat burnout and find freedom in an overworked world, Beat Gender Bias, Lead Like a Coach, and Gender-Balanced Leadership.

People whose personal details and experiences signal they come from racially diverse backgrounds are less likely than anglo or Caucasian candidates to make it through the first cut in recruitment processes. Even if the organisation says it values diversity.  

A strategy adopted to beat the system is to ‘whiten’ information, and this makes it more likely to get past that first hurdle or two. And recent research shows that when individuals believe the rhetoric of diversity-friendly organisations and therefore don’t whiten their resumes, they are less likely to be selected than those who do. Another damned if you do, doomed if you don’t scenario that shows how difficult fairness is.  

Yet we have made some progress. Since the early 2000s, awareness of how easily unconscious thinking biases decisions has grown enormously. It was believed associations couldn’t be changed without a major but non-guaranteed reprogramming effort. Since then, we’ve learned the associations do change in other ways, but more importantly, we know that if we shift the focus to improving decision-making processes we can get a better payback on effort.  

A growing list of what doesn’t work might seem frustrating, but it stops us from continuing to make the same mistakes and that has real value. We know command and control approaches, adopted by many organisations, backfire. You can’t get people to change by telling them to. And you don’t get people to change by blaming them for doing the wrong thing.  

Making training about beliefs and preferences mandatory is almost guaranteed to fail. That’s because suppressing unconscious beliefs, to ‘do what’s expected’, is well-known to make bias more, not less, likely. And the danger is that in these circumstances biases may increase rather than decrease.  

It’s not enough to be committed to making fair decisions  

Even when managers and decision-makers espouse a commitment to gender equality and a desire to promote more women into leadership positions, they are prone to evaluate women less positively.  

Women are commonly demoted to traditional gender roles. Forty-five percent of women in one study have been asked to make the tea in meetings. Some were CEO at the time. Female doctors are often mistaken for nurses, female lawyers for paralegals and female professionals of many kinds for personal assistants.   

Student evaluations of teaching appear to be influenced similarly. Even in an online course where the gender of the instructor was manipulated so that identical experiences were provided to students, those students who believed they had a female teacher provided significantly lower teaching evaluations. While these lower ratings misrepresent actual competency, they nevertheless may create a self-fulfilling prophesy where women’s career advancement choices begin to conform to the stereotype. And erroneous beliefs about women’s competency levels limit the opportunities that are provided to them; the misrepresentations are perpetuated.  

How to debias decisions  

By deliberately analysing and structuring how information is conveyed and options are presented, it can become easier to make fairer decisions.  

Johnson & Johnson, which fields about 1 million job applications for over 25,000 job openings each year, now uses Textio to debias their job ads. When they first started using it they found that their job ads were skewed with masculine language. They were disproportionately valuing male characteristics. Their pilot program to change the language in their ads resulted in a 9 per cent percent increase in female applicants.  

Anonymous processes are the most effective at debiasing evaluations of people. There’s been a surge in the use of automated recruitment tools for debiasing, but they aren’t perfect either. They may simply be making it easier to make the same mistakes, while masquerading as fair and objective. Experimentation is the order of the day. Run processes in parallel, be curious about where you can intervene in your own processes to get the best outcomes.  

To avoid the problems of AI, you can change up the recruitment process, in a highly structured, controlled method suggested by Iris Bohnet. It will seem very mechanistic, and it is, deliberately so. The biggest challenge in taking such an approach is that it questions the ‘expertise’ of senior leaders and experienced HR professionals. Are they prepared to take themselves out of the equation? Would they believe an objective process could occur for a decision in which they have an interest, but in which their involvement was limited?  

If senior leaders and HR executives are prepared to admit to fallibility, to be aware that they may notice and value the behaviours of different groups of people in different ways, there are emerging practices that will make sure bias is minimised and fairer decisions are made.

Tags: management, brand strategy, leadership, diversity

Show Comments

Latest Whitepapers

State of the CMO 2021

CMO’s State of the CMO is an annual industry research initiative aimed at gauging how ...

More whitepapers

Latest Videos

More Videos

Invest and earn with Coinbloc .us. Guaranteed Weekly ROI, early signals, fast withdrawals among others. I recommend Coinbloc .us as on...

Hans Jensen

Explainer: What marketers need to know about cryptocurrency

Read more

Investment decisions are a big deal, so why not get some guidance? You can day-trade cryptos, BUY and HOLD and evaluate the assets with f...

Dave Sigurd

Gartner: Digital isn't enough of a superpower for CMOs anymore

Read more

I normally don’t feel comfortable investing online but because the company I worked for downsized due to the pandemic and I was one of th...

Dave Sigurd

CMO's top 8 martech stories for the week - 9 June 2022

Read more

Investment decisions are a big deal, so why not get some guidance? You can day-trade cryptos, BUY and HOLD and evaluate the assets with f...

Dave Sigurd

Creating a marketplace for wellness

Read more

A solution for an retail industry data extraction. https://e-scraper.com/usefu...

"e-Scraper" Data Extracting

​Catchoftheday launches fee-based online shopping club

Read more

Blog Posts

2 hidden ingredients for leadership success CMOs need to know

Your success as a senior marketing professional has much in common with your success as a leader. Both marketing, and leadership activities, depend on building trust, encouraging action, and reliably fulfilling promises that have been made.

Gerard Penna

Leadership advisor, coach

How shifting economic trends are impacting digital media

Between further interest rate rises, inflation​, empty shelves, extortionate lettuce prices, supply chain issues and the barely believable events in Eastern Europe, the past six months there’s been a cacophony of environmental factors.

Kieran Reed

Senior digital manager, Alpha Digital

5 ways to turn imposter syndrome into confidence and conviction

Imposter syndrome. That feeling others will discover you are actually not as good as they expect, and at any point you will be exposed and ridiculed as a fraud. If you can relate to this, then you are not alone.

Rowena Millward

Author, consultant

Sign in