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You look in the mirror each day and you feel certain you know who you are. Biased against certain people? Of course not. That’s someone else. And you move on with your day.
But as companies scramble to react to today’s many longstanding inequities, they’re installing a host of robust diversity and inclusion (D&I) programs that must be making at least some people uncomfortable. To some degree, experts tell me, there is a seed of unconscious bias in almost all of us. The challenge is accepting and adjusting, not turning away.
I can only just scratch the surface here, but ask any executive, for example, if he or she treats everyone the same and nearly everyone will say they do. Color blind? Yes. But to Andrés Tapia, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s D&I practice who has a rich history of upping companies’ diversity game, that’s a red flag. “The bottom line is if this person really believes they are totally color blind, they have an unconscious bias,” he says. Instead of recognizing, accepting and appreciating someone’s differences, they will assume their colleagues think exactly as they do, with the spillover being misunderstandings and misconceptions.
“Fit,” meanwhile, is a common barometer for hiring. Who can argue against considering whether a candidate will fit well into the company’s culture? Except, if that culture is heavily male or dominantly one race, the doors will never open to hires who don’t fit the mold. Study after study shows that we have a natural tendency to like those similar to us, and view them through a softer lens. “We’ll say, ‘She’s not ready because she lacks the experience,’” Tapia says. “But then for someone else, it’s ‘He’ll rise to the occasion.’”
Even the word “diversity” can make you rethink your world. In a compelling recent column at the Korn Ferry Institute website, Barry Callender, a principal also in our D&I practice, discusses the paradox that hiring “diverse” individuals is not the same as having a truly diverse organization. Labeling anyone that way can be inadvertently exclusive, he writes, “implying an unfair preference in hiring, lower employee standards, and the idea that only women and people of color are diverse.” His solution: Look to hire and promote “talent from under-represented groups,” addressing imbalances instead of favoring race or gender.