A great deal has been published about the negative effects of unconscious bias, the knowledge that we all have, and often act on, negative biases about those who are not like us. Yet, positive biases can have just as profound an effect.
Here’s how it goes: By helping others with whom we have relationships, we provide advantages to our “in-group,” others who are like us. For example, if I provide a work reference for the child of my friend, I intend only to be helpful, yet I unintentionally limit diversity by promoting the status quo. How does a disadvantaged person, without these connections, access equal opportunities?
My thinking about discrimination as something that solely inflicts harm on others has changed, now that I understand that discrimination often, more subtly, results from the actions of helping people who are like me, which serves to maintain an “out-group,” and effectively limit diversity.
The hiring processes in most companies contain three positive biases. They include, educational attainment (where an applicant went to school and how well they did there); experience-level (how long they have been in the workforce vs. how long in the job market); and relationships (how much of a network the applicant has established or how many people they can tap into for support, references, etc.). These biases are driving hiring practices and netting the overly homogeneous workplaces that exist today. Positive biases warrant examination and require fundamental rethinking if diverse workforces are to develop. This does not mean that it’s wrong to be helpful when asked, only that it’s critical not to favor only those with whom we have a connection, or attended our alma mater, or worked with us at a previous company or with whom we feel comfortable. Positive biases are as destructive as negative biases, if not more so, but with meaningful acknowledgement and careful planning, they too can be countered.