Horse Sense for Removing Hiring Bias

I remember a story from long ago about two cowboys who bet on who had the slowest horse. The race stopped before it started as both horse and cowboy stood motionless – neither cowboy wanted to lose the bet. Then the saloon owner told the cowboys to switch horses and race to the end of the street. It was clear by the end of the race which was the slowest horse. This was a unique way of removing bias from the process and getting at the truth. It’s called forcing a change in point of view. I call it good horse sense.

Something similar happened early in my business career.

My boss asked me to interview a candidate for a corporate financial analyst position. At the debriefing session that afternoon I described only why the person was unqualified in no uncertain terms. Others thought he was quite strong and gave their equally forcefully stated positive reasons. To remove bias, my boss asked me to only mention the candidate’s strong points and those who liked him to give evidence of why he wasn’t qualified. The truth soon emerged. This is another example of good horse sense.

Proving your initial opinion is wrong eventually became one of my 12 interview bias removal techniques. While I suggest it should always be applied when interviewing candidates, the same “disprove your opinion” horse sense approach has merit whenever you’re trying to uncover the truth about anything. During the interviewing process I suggest that when you like someone too soon look for evidence the person is incompetent. Otherwise you’ll unconsciously seek evidence to confirm your first impression reaction. If the person’s first impression is negative, go out of your way to prove the person is competent. Changing your point of view this way allows the truth to emerge.

Now back to earlier this month. I was listening to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson describe how he was transforming the U.S. State Department to be more diverse. While most companies advocate this approach, few have implemented a strategy to achieve it. Instead they just fine-tune existing hiring processes, urge compliance and hope it works. It never does, but it lets people feel good that they’re working on the problem. Without the right strategy and a tactical plan to achieve it is how activity masks itself for progress. This is another example of horse sense.

Tillerson’s approach was driven by the right strategy implemented with a host of new tactics. Here were his big points:

1.    The mix matters. Tillerson argued that the State Department workforce at all levels will and must match the diversity of the population it serves.

2.    Starting early is essential. By “early” Tillerson meant early in a person’s career. This means their recruiting programs must be more diverse in their new hire and their intern programs. As part of this he wanted to recruit from those universities that already had a diverse population, not just the elite ones. He contended there are as many budding stars there as anywhere else.

3.    The metrics matter. Every department will be measured on their success. No more excuses.

4.    We’ll train and push people. Intern and leadership programs will become as diverse as the U.S. population.

5.    We’ll provide early exposure to the right leaders. Getting ahead requires senior level sponsorship and mentoring. The front row must be diverse.

6.    Think long term. This program will be embedded in our culture and live beyond this administration.

This seems like a pretty good strategic blueprint for any company that’s serious about diversity. Since the ‘80s companies have been talking about expanding their diversity hiring effort, but few have been successful across the board and over extended periods of time. From what I’ve seen, most companies are too reactive. When a problem is noticed there’s a rush to implement a bunch of tactical programs to solve some short-term compliance problems. Unfortunately the wrong strategy is used based on short-term thinking to get short-term relief. Once the pressure is gone things revert back to the old ways of doing business.

Tillerson’s program could transform not only the State Department but also every company in the U.S. that implemented a similar diversity initiative. Of course, the media pundits had a different take. First, they missed the big picture and thought he was just grandstanding. Their biggest proof was that the State Department was starting to implement layoffs that would shrink the workforce, so his point was just a cover for the reduction in force.

Yelling at the screen, I suggested they all switch horses. But no one was listening.