Trust the science

BEWorks experts argue that 'de-biasing' the hiring and promotion process is the single-most effective step businesses can take to start meeting their DEI ambitions.


By Dr. Sofia Deleniv, Dr. Shelbie Sutherland and Kelly Peters

This story originally appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of strategy.

Given the waves of civil unrest that washed over North America after last year’s killing of George Floyd, it comes as no surprise that the corporate world rushed to express its solidarity and ambitious plans to tackle inequality in its ranks.

While this change is sorely needed, we are already hearing reports of consumers and employers experiencing “statement fatigue” – a term which comically resonates with “feminist fatigue” of the previous decade, when the corporate world voraciously marketed itself as all-things-feminism. There is no denying that leaders are in danger of being perceived as making token efforts in the realm of DEI, while avoiding measures that actually need to be taken to move the needle. Can anyone blame the sceptics when our efforts currently consist of solutions like debiasing workshops?

The question of whether debiasing truly works is highly contested and not well supported by the data. A 2019 study published in the academic journal Psychological Science did report significant benefits of certain forms of debiasing – and yet a close look at the study reveals that the training only yielded a roughly 20% drop in bias. Is this where we decide to stop and celebrate?

A further complicating factor is the evidence, collected by Harvard and Tel Aviv University researchers, that debiasing workshops can trigger rebound discrimination. One relevant factor here is the “moral licensing” effect, whereby morally positive acts like attending workshops or consuming eco-friendly products generate feelings of being “absolved” of one’s wrongdoings and implicitly give us license to engage in rebound behaviours beyond our own awareness.

Our goal in saying this is not to determine whether debiasing, or any other measure we take to achieve workplace equality, is genuinely effective. Rather, it is to point out that, whatever it is we’re doing, we are far from being certain that our tactics work.

This brings us to the following logical question: If we are so eager to “outpsychologize” the flawed human biases that contribute to poor decisions, why are we overlooking the one solution that is virtually guaranteed to help? That is, replacing our illusorily “impartial” method for assessing hiring and promotions candidates with an objective one that shields the decision-making process from detrimental human bias.

Removing bias-driven noise that contaminates decision-making is the single-most effective step businesses can take to start meeting their DEI ambitions. It can be done by removing identifiers from applicants’ resumes before review. Candidate names, institutions and name-drops risk triggering familiarity biases that tempt you into interviewing someone purely on the connection you feel from sharing an alma mater or a college football team.

In addition, you can encourage individuals to apply even if they are not sure they meet all of the criteria. Approach your hiring process with a healthy dose of humility about the range of factors that shape who even gets to the point of applying to your company. Individuals differ in their access to quality education and professional mentorship. They also vary in how they evaluate their own capabilities and qualifications. For instance, men are more likely than women to consider themselves better-than-average, and over twice as likely than them to enter competitions – even in domains where there are no sex differences in performance.

Acknowledge that debiasing your selection process will not get you all the way to an inclusive workplace, and try to offset the upstream inequalities that shape your pool of applicants through inclusive language that makes room for a diversity of self-assessments.

Tactics like these can form part of a holistic and equitable process for identifying those best suited to thrive within our organizations. Crucially, they also bring another, widely underappreciated benefit: protection from the risk of having our decisions misinterpreted by disappointed parties.

Risk mitigation is certainly a weighty consideration in today’s litigious climate. Over the past two decades, 99% of Fortune 500s have paid settlements in discrimination lawsuits. It’s often hard to gauge where the injustice lies. Many lawsuits stem from blatant cases of discrimination. Others are rooted in gross misunderstandings and miscommunications. Whichever one it is, lawsuits inevitably represent one of two things: humans deprived of opportunities, or organizations caught in a storm that was stirred up by the untransparent nature of their own decision-making.

All of this would be unnecessary if the business world took its expressed commitment to equality to its logical conclusion and pursued an objective approach to hiring and promotions that is aware of the psychological biases that shape unfair outcomes and decisions.

The principles of science and objectivity have already helped us shape a stable world. Most of us do not doubt the processes that go into engineering vaccines, skyscrapers, or cars. Our trust in these is rooted in the objective framework that validates these processes through testing and experimentation. Perhaps it’s time that more leaders recognize the potential of bringing this approach into HR.

BEworks is a behavioural science consulting firm where Dr. Sofia Deleniv is a neuroscientist and a technical writer,  Dr. Shelbie Sutherland is a developmental scientist, and Kelly Peters is co-founder and CEO.