Getting to the Root of Bias

To stem the tide of bias in the workplace, HR leaders need to first get a better grasp on its root causes, learn to recognize how bias shows itself and be prepared to lead frank–and often, uncomfortable–conversations.

That’s according to Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, who delivered the closing keynote address at the Society for Human Resource Management’s annual convention in Chicago in June. While policy reform and enhanced training can be effective tools for combatting bias, Sandberg focused much of her remarks on that three-pronged, self-reflective journey she believes HR professionals need to undertake.

In light of recent research, Sandberg’s recommendations seem especially salient. A new survey by i4cp found that nearly half of HR execs polled said gender-pay inequity isn’t an issue at their organizations, despite general agreement that American women earn about 20-percent less than men, often for the same work. Research recently conducted by LinkedIn and CNBC on gender issues in the financial-services industry also found that about a third of company leaders surveyed reported their organizations had made progress on gender equality, compared to 23 percent of the rank-and-file. While there are many ways bias may manifest itself in the workplace, gender inequities have been among the most headline-grabbing in recent months, making it especially troubling that more leaders–HR professionals included–aren’t acknowledging the full extent of the issue.

Sandberg’s recommendations could lay the groundwork for breaking down that disconnect. One issue, she said, that could be preventing HR leaders from effectively addressing bias in the workplace is that they may not understand just how ingrained bias is in our society. From toys to traits, we’re taught from a young age, she posited, how girls and boys are supposed to behave. She tested this theory during her address, asking how many audience members recall being called bossy as a child; nearly every one of the thousands of women in the audience raised her hand, compared to a handful of men. Learned expectations–which also extend to race, sexual orientation and many other identities–carry into adulthood and the workplace, and it’s incumbent upon HR to realize that.

The next step on this journey, Sandberg said, is recognizing how those intrinsic biases crop up in the workplace. While institutional issues such as pay disparities are one example, bias can often be observed in much more subtler ways. For instance, female bosses–maybe those same young girls who were called bossy–are often given the descriptor “aggressive,” while men exhibiting the same behavior are applauded for their leadership. Resumes with male names receive more callbacks than female resumes, Sandberg said–as do those with “white”-sounding names.

While Sandberg noted AI can help employers to screen for some of these issues, it shouldn’t be wholly relied upon as a fix, especially since AI is only as unbiased as the people coding it. I believe HR leaders can also be more intentional about recognizing their own intrinsic biases, and open conversations among the workforce that encourage employees to do the same.

Some of that work may lead to formal bias training but could also translate to a broader organizational-communication strategy. Sandberg, who lost her own husband three years ago, noted the importance of people being empowered to bring their whole selves–the good, bad and the in between–to work. I think it follows that employees who feel they can talk openly about complex issues like grief, medical challenges or bias feel valued and, ultimately, more satisfied. Discussion circles and employee-resource groups can help encourage this culture shift–and, Sandberg noted, HR should urge employees to participate in such efforts, even if they don’t personally identify with that particular identity or cause. That’s a noteworthy point, as actively putting yourself in another’s shoes can be an eye-opening experience.

The significant role culture can play in a company’s success, along with the burgeoning public attention to inequalities in the workplace, are rendering an actionable plan around bias a necessity. And, if Sandberg’s recommendations are to be believed, that starts squarely with HR leaders taking a tough look at the realities of their workplace, including owning their own intrinsic biases.

Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at