Confronting Superiors Regarding Bias
Updated: Jul 8, 2021
I recruit new hires for my company, as we do not have a human resources department. Our process is very straightforward - we begin with initial phone screenings or on-campus interviews when visiting colleges. If we choose to move forward with a candidate, we invite them to our office where they participate in a round-robin style interview where they meet a handful of associates and managers in our organization. Usually, if that goes well, they quickly meet with the owner of our company.
Here's where I struggle: I find that I myself, as well as my colleagues, have become conditioned not to move candidates forward unless they meet certain criteria that we know the owner looks for. This is usually a very narrow criteria - she subconsciously favors candidates of a certain socio-economic status, appearance, age, and often race. We're can be chastised if we introduce the owner to candidates who "would never fit in here." I want to encourage diversity in our workplace - I think we would greatly benefit from it. But how do I approach this situation myself, as well as respond to nay-saying colleagues who say "there's no point in introducing them to her."
Thanks for your question, and for wanting to do more. It raises the issues of diversity and inclusion, and the risk of trying to obtain diversity without inclusion, which typically does not have a good outcome.
The fundamental question appears to be whether the owner of the company is open to recognizing how her biases are affecting hiring and the talent pipeline. There are several ways that you could raise this with her, if you’re willing, addressing the business case.
One way is to ask her question focusing on “fit”: What does she mean by fit? Which employees have been “bad fits” and why? See whether the owner will engage with you about what she’s looking for with “fit” and you can share with her the research that indicates what companies and employees do well when employees’ values and the company’s values are aligned. Here’s an article that might be helpful to you, and perhaps you can share with the owner.
Another way to address this with the owner is to focus on the advantages of having a diverse workforce. You can ask her thoughts about the advantages of having a diverse workforce and, assuming she isn’t aware of it, then present her with information about the advantages and ask for her response to that information. She may dismiss the information as not pertinent to her company, but you might consider pushing her a bit—inquiring why it isn’t relevant, whether it would hurt the company’s competitiveness.
You can gently try to raise the question of bias directly. (I say gently because I don’t know how she’d react to your addressing it directly and clearly and I assume you don’t want to get fired.) How you’ve noticed a pattern and wonder whether she’s noticed it too: Diverse applicants who make it to the final stage are typically rejected by her. Ask her whether she’s noticed that? If she has, asked her what that’s about; if she hasn’t, ask what she makes of it? (Come to that meeting with statistics about it so it’s harder for her to dismiss the issue.)
Even if you are successful in getting her to approve diverse applicants who make it to the final stage, if she is doing so under duress, the work environment will likely not be inclusive toward the new hire, particularly if that person is the only diverse hire. In that case, there would be diversity without inclusion, which creates multiple problems. Ideally, the question is how to get the owner to transform into a champion for diversity and inclusion.
I do not have the expertise to address any question of discriminatory hiring practices and potential legal risks; that may be another avenue to discuss with her once you have consulted either an HR professional or employment lawyer about that issue.
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