Talent Management

How to overcome implicit bias in your hiring process

how to overcome implicit bias network

In this three-part series on implicit bias in hiring, we focus on understanding this issue at its core level and its impact on building a diverse workforce. We then look at ways we can short-circuit these challenges right now by making changes in how we hire and, later, how to eliminate these biases in the long run through concentrated effort.

Part I: What is implicit bias in hiring?

Part II: 4 tips to reduce bias and hire a more diverse workforce

Related: Joseph Kenner, president and CEO of Greyston, implements “open hiring” business model to help develop diverse talent

Much like that old stain on the carpet or that faint scratch on the car door, implicit bias never truly goes away. After all, says Vistage speaker and neuroscientist Rebecca Heiss, our unconscious, stress-fueled response to anything different was built into our brains nearly a quarter of a million years ago. 

That doesn’t mean it cannot be overcome, she says. 

“We have the tools to do it,” says Heiss, CEO and Founder of Icueity, LLC in Greenville, South Carolina. “We have to be willing to recognize that as good as we think we are, we still do this. I study this stuff and I catch myself all the time when I’m paying attention.” 

While some of those tools and tips can work in mitigating implicit bias in the short term,  eliminating those barriers to bring in and retain a diverse workforce will take a more prolonged, concentrated effort, Heiss says. It’s possible, but it will take work. 

Heiss outlined four steps employers can take toward eliminating implicit bias in hiring: 


1. Find a common purpose

This sounds counterintuitive, Heiss says, but employers and candidates can bond over a common purpose that is business-related and not associated with background or ethnicity. 

“I’d love to tell you that your brain is a loving, harmonic place, but it just isn’t,” Heiss says. “It’s going to form negative associations. But we can work with our biology and come up with a stronger sense of belonging to something outside of race, age or gender.”  

Several companies have leveraged this “common purpose” concept, from corporate rivalries (Burger King v. McDonald’s, Pepsi v. Coke) to more abstract foes, such as Apple when it comes to poor design or clothing retailer Zappos and its relentless pursuit of customer care.

“It’s not an immediate competitor, but every single day, every single person there goes in to fight against poor customer service” Heiss says. “When we make this tangible for our teams, we eliminate all the other factors that we might look to to find differences.” 

2. Get used to being uncomfortable 

That cortisol response to differences, that instinctive discomfort, used to mean the difference between life and death 200,000 years ago, Heiss says. Now, it’s just discomfort. And managers and employers can disrupt the shortcut that discomfort equals death. 

“Back in ancestral times, things were black and white,” Heiss says. “You weren’t just a little bit cold, you might freeze to death. But today, most of life happens in a gray area where you’re not totally comfortable and safe and happy, but you’re not going to die.” 

Heiss suggests spending a little time each day engaging those stressors. By training your brain to sit in the discomfort, you acclimate to it, Heiss says. That way, when discomfort hits, you’re used to it. 

How do you train your brain to embrace discomfort? By actively seeking discomfort in your daily routine, says Heiss, such as dancing by yourself at a party or asking a barista for 10% off your coffee. 

“They’re probably going to say no. And great! ” she says. “Nothing bad happened. It’s awkward and it’s weird, but it’s not going to kill you.”

3. Seek out different perspectives

Once you’ve gone all “dance like nobody’s watching,” the next step is what Heiss calls “exposure therapy,” finding people with different perspectives so that, over time, their differences don’t cause those unconscious stress responses. 

Exposure therapy has proven effective, Heiss says, citing a study where a group of friends watched one of them stick their hand in ice water, a painful experience, and rated the stress response of the others. The psychologists then conducted the same trial, but with strangers of different ethnic backgrounds. The experiment found the first group showed more concern for their friends. 

But then the second group played the collaborative video game “Rock Band” for 15 minutes before conducting the experiment again. The psychologists found members of the second group were as empathic to one another as the first group. 

Much like seeking discomfort, interacting with different people causes your body to release stress hormones, Heiss says. 

“Your body is going to release cortisol and say, ‘Oh my gosh, you need to panic, you need to get out of there, you need to flee, you need to fight,’” Heiss says. “No, what we need to do is sit with that discomfort. We’re not going to die here. This isn’t a real threat. We’re fine. I can stay in my frontal conscious lobe.” 

Adds Heiss: “The more we can sit with that discomfort, knowing that we’re having this flood of cortisol coming when discomfort finds us, the more aware we can be.” 

4. Practice empathy

Ultimately, these tools and practices can help counteract bias, but you’re still going to act unconsciously, Heiss says. When that happens, remember to listen and be empathetic. 

“I can tell you what it’s like to be a woman, but I certainly cannot tell you what it’s like to be in Black skin,” Heiss says. “My biggest tool is that I have ears to listen, and I can try to help amplify those voices.” 

The key is diligence, to continue working to rewrite how your brain perceives difference. Remember, Heiss says, this is a marathon. Continuing to do the work and challenge yourself is not an endpoint, but rather a lifelong learning that requires constant focus. 

“If you train for a marathon and then you stop, you turn back into a couch potato,” Heiss says. “We’re all just opening our eyes and saying, ‘Wow, how can I work to better understand my own brain and to challenge it to be the brain that I want it to be? To be the conscious brain that I think I am?’ We have to be willing to recognize that we’re all not there and this is a journey.” 


Category: Talent Management

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About the Author: Glenn Jeffers

Glenn Jeffers is a Vistage staff writer and an award-winning reporter and editor. Previously, he served as editor of Kellogg, the alumni magazine of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. He h

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