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  • Writer's pictureFletcher Consulting

The Red Flags of Bias

Those of us who hire, promote, or assign projects in our organizations are effectively gatekeepers in our organizations’ efforts toward diversity, equity, and inclusion. We have a responsibility to make staffing decisions based on objective criteria.

But no matter how much care we take to distribute opportunities based on people’s skills and capacities, their cultural or social identities still influence us—sometimes unconsciously.

It’s not always easy to spot the moments when our conscious decisions are being affected by unconscious bias and stereotypes. But I’ve found there are few red flags.

As you are justifying a personnel decision, does any of your reasoning refer to…

  • A personality type? Do someone’s characteristics, like being confrontational, or shy, make you think they aren’t the right person to go with? Subjective words like these may be a tell that bias is at work, because we often associate these traits with particular genders and races. Ask yourself: Is there an upside to this personality trait that would actually make it desirable for the role?

  • “Professionalism”? If this word is coming to mind, dig deeper into the specific issue that brought it there. Did they use a term that surprised you (say, identifying themselves as “queer”)? Or maybe they have an afro or a tattoo, or speak with an accent. These superficial markers don’t make someone professional. It’s their behavior: things like work ethic, integrity, collaboration, service orientation, and commitment to excellence. Don’t lose out on someone with these qualities because you have a bias against the way they look or talk.

  • Someone else’s reaction? Here’s one I encountered recently: “I’m not uncomfortable with [employee x], but the client might be.” This might be true, or it might not. But either way, it amounts to discrimination—if the reason for the “discomfort” is their gender expression, their race, their disability, or other aspect of their identity. Don’t use the excuse that others might be biased. The only person whose actions you can control is you.

There are many other clues like these that might point toward unconscious bias underlying decisions. But the sooner you catch them, the more you give your brain a chance to see what’s really in front of you.

Our unconscious brains are always trying to run away with our decision-making ability. The more we practice noticing and pushing back when they do, the more likely we’ll make choices that enrich our organizations with the benefits of diversity.


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