The Unintentionally Unethical and Biased Employee —
I believe that most people try to do the right thing most of the time. If they make a commitment, they try to keep it. When they have to choose between an organization’s best interests and their own, they often err in favor of the organization. We see this in our clients.
I suggest that most people who are fully aware when deciding between their own self interest and their commitment to the organization make decisions that favor the organization.
Yet I have examples of employees who regularly make decisions at the expense of the organization and they didn’t even know it. Hiring for character or another webinar on ethics is not going to solve the problem of unconscious bias.
“Ignorance is Bliss”, a phrase that has been in our lexicon since 1742, sums up the situation — humans make decisions in their favor without paying the price of guilty feelings.
I first learned about this in a graduate course on research methods. Imagine a group of politically progressive researchers, dedicated to the scientific method, implement a study of working mothers and find that there is no negative impact on their children if mom works.
Another group of conservative researchers, who are just as committed to the scientific method, study working mothers and see a negative impact on their children if mom works.
Both believe they have done their research accurately and without bias and are eager to publish their results, each contradicting the other. Actually, there are enough studies on the subject published and the results are: “The best predictor of the outcome of studies on the impact of working mothers is the political orientation of the researchers conducting the study.”
To the world, it appears that either or both groups had violated the ethics at the core of their profession by breaking their commitment to science and truth in favor of a personal agenda.
This story is not unique. Doctors committed to the hippocratic oath are still more likely to recommend a surgery they can perform over a less invasive procedure; lawyers committed to The Attorneys’ Code of Ethics tend to make decisions that send cases unnecessarily to trial instead of settling; and financial and business executives committed to the long term sustainability of their firms tend to make decisions that increase their revenue or status yet put their organizations at risk.
The Science Behind Unconscious Bias
There may be a scientific explanation that does not call into question the character of the decision makers. In 2010, Ann Harvey and a group of neurologists hired people to participate in a study of art preferences. They hooked them up to an fMRI, which would indicate whether a person truly preferred a piece of art or fabricated their preference. In this clever study, some of the art was shown with the logo of the company who had paid the participants. In other cases, it was not. The fMRI revealed that seeing the logo lit up the parts of the brain that indicate a true preference, not the areas that indicated a fabrication.
It is fair to say that in some cases, people honestly believe they are making unbiased decisions yet their brain “tricks” them into serving themselves.
Is There a Solution to Unconscious Bias?
First, put away the self help books. Creating awareness is necessary but not sufficient to solve this problem. Our brain will outsmart us and may even use the information from these books to justify a biased decision.
Instead, the solution is to create organizational processes, systems, and structures that minimize the impact of self serving biases.
Some Solutions We Use at Psynet Group:
At Psynet Group if we lost our ethical reputation, we would be out of business. To protect ourselves from unconscious, self serving biases, we took our own advice and implemented a few processes, systems, and structures.
We have important decisions reviewed by someone without “skin in the game”. Disconnecting any additional income or agenda causes a greater focus on the facts. At Psynet Group, we have internal people who play this role and Dr. Dave Popple uses his relationships with executives to advise him on major decisions.
We create mechanisms that limit the upside for the decision maker. These limiters are often part of policy and kick in automatically. As a result, they are immune from human bias because the decisions were made apriori. The clearest example is that we limit the number of pre-hire executive assessments per role to reduce the financial benefit to us of rejecting a candidate.
We use the bias in our favor by linking the benefit to both the self and to the commitment. We tie our financial rewards to the best possible decisions for our clients. When we perceive our self interests as linked with our clients’ best interests, the effects of the bias shrink. For example, we guarantee client satisfaction or else we work for free .
We hire for values that go beyond financial compensation. When we select our team, we hire people who are motivated by making an impact and love the work. As a result, we tend to put forth more effort than necessary; may not correlate with financial rewards, but is more personally satisfying.
To help clients avoid making bad decisions due to unconscious biases, we create customized solutions by selecting from our more than 40 processes, systems, and structures. Many are counterintuitive and clever.
If you are curious how we could do the same for you, reach out to us at [email protected] and let’s talk.