Several times a week my family and I will catch an episode of The Family Feud, hosted by one of my favorite people, comedian Steve Harvey. @IAmSteveHarvey As we sit in our living room, we unconsciously choose sides, and root from one team over the other. In most cases, when there is a white family playing against a black family, we root for the black family. When my wife and I were talking a few weeks ago she used this as an example of bias. Initially, I was taken aback. I thought to myself, “No I am not that shallow. I root for the team who is better, who is smarter, and who has a better personality.”
But then I reviewed who I aligned with in reality shows or other competitions and she was right. The one thing that came back over and over was race. I sided with the competitors who look like me. In them I see me. I connect with them on a subconscious level which it translates to “they are better, they are smarter, and they have a better personality.” The developmental term for it is “in-group preference;” in simple terms: I prefer those in the group that represent me and attribute to them characteristics I have no way of verifying. How do I know if a family is smarter over another by watching them on TV for 10 seconds? I don’t! But I identify with them.
Bias is defined as “a preference for one thing over another.” When we are talking about a game show or a reality show my bias seems innocent and harmless. The world will not stop spinning if I think Rueben Studdard is a better singer than Clay Aiken. The world is still a safe place even if I think Serena Williams is a better tennis player than Chris Evert. In that context, when there isn’t much at risk, my bias is pretty innocent. But what if that bias bleeds in to other areas?
When I was in my early 30’s I was a mid-level manager for a large insurance company. I was responsible for hiring several new employees. There were interviews that I conducted where I felt I had a better connection with some candidates more than others. I told myself that they had a better, more outgoing personality. I told myself this person’s personality would be a better fit in our office. I told myself this person had the ability to provide better customer service. Of the candidates I hired about half of them were black.
During my training as a manager I was taught that when we hire we should try and hire a population that reflect the area where the office is located. According to those criteria my minority hires were 30% above where they should have been. But I found ways to justify them. My justification was so layered and thick that I didn’t realize what I did until I began thinking about writing this piece 25 years after I made the hires. Even when realizing it I justified it by saying I was making up for the imbalance that was created before me. It is a sentiment that is rooted is justice but less accurate than I care to admit. In all honesty, I found a way to make those hires work and fit.
When I was unemployed a few years ago, I sat down with the director of the human resources department at a fortune 500 company. He was a fellow church member and he agreed to help me with my interviewing skills. The first thing he told me about interviewing for a job still sticks with me.
“In the interview, you have got to get the decision maker to see you as someone they will want to spend 8 hours a day with during the week.” He told me. He was trying to get me to see the interview from the other side of the table and he admitted a lot of the decision making process comes down to, “Do I like this person enough to spend my work day with them?” What goes into this important decision are even more questions. Do I feel a connection with this person? Do we have anything in common? Are our experiences similar? In answering those questions, which I feel is all done subconsciously; we make a lot of assumptions based on our biases. In-group preference joins the decision making and often the people we hire are more like us than we realize. So white guys hire white guys and black-mid-level-managers hire as many like them as they can because the more people I work with like me, the quicker my 8 hours will go by.
I really don’t think the majority of people in the world are racist. I have to believe that because that makes my life one of hope rather than despair. I think we all have biases and those biases are acted upon unconsciously. I don’t think people say, “I’m not gonna hire any Black people today!” Rather than say, I won’t hire black people, I think many go into the hiring process hoping to be fair but are conned by their biases to hire people who are most like them; people they are comfortable around. Often times comfort is defined along racial line.
So what do we do? In the conversation around race we have to get honest and admit we have biases and then we construct a system that protects us against ourselves. In this instance, we bring in several people of different backgrounds to help in the interview process and decision making. By doing this our biases fight it out, our biases are challenged, and our biases are kept in check. Having bias I don’t think is wrong because we can’t control that. What is wrong is not admitting we have them and then allowing them to change the world….or keep it the same.