How Harvard, and corporate America, could fairly evaluate people

The Harvard admissions trial that began in October highlights why diversity, inclusion, fairness and equity initiatives have yielded such dismal results, despite innumerable academic studies and the huge focus and spending by corporate America on this over the past couple of decades. We believe it is because of inadequacies involving how people are evaluated and assessed.

Ironically, Harvard’s admissions criteria were established as part of their affirmative action initiative, and what they found is constant with the failure of diversity and inclusion initiatives generally — that is, they lack analytical rigor and are ambiguous as to outcome. If these initiatives are based on data and metrics integrated into overall business strategies, they are more likely to move the needle.

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In analyzing admissions data from Harvard, the Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), who filed the lawsuit, found the admissions practice factored in personality traits and characteristics that significantly undermined otherwise qualified Asian Americans’ chances of getting into Harvard. The characteristics and traits were subjective, ambiguous, intangible in nature and relied on intuition on the part of those making the assessments. This revealed biases.

There is a parallel to how Harvard evaluates and assesses to hiring, promotion and performance management in corporate America. A Mental Health America/Faas Foundation study, “Mind the Workplace,” of more than 20,000 respondents found the majority of workers are not fairly and properly evaluated and assessed. Specifically, the study found:

— 17 percent believe their organization always or often deals appropriately with co-workers who are doing his or her job;

— 28 percent feel that all people are held accountable for their work, regardless of their position in the company;

— 22 percent feel that people are paid what they are worth; and 

— 23 percent feel that people in their organization are being unfairly recognized, while others with better experience or skills don’t get recognition.

As with performance management in the hiring and promotion processes there also is a disproportionate reliance on the perceptions and intuition of those making the decision to hire or promote, much of which is subjective or ambiguous. So, like Harvard’s admissions, there are biases, conscious and unconscious — which gets us back to the reason diversity, inclusion, fairness and equity initiatives usually fail.

The answer here is pretty obvious: rooting out bias. A first step for organizations is to review the criteria they use in assessing and evaluating to reduce subjectivity, ambiguity and intangibility in how they measure. The next step is for decision-makers across the organization to better understand bias. While most people understand conscious bias, few understand unconscious bias. 

Unconscious biases are errors in judgment that cause people to make choices that unwittingly favor one group over another. Most people are unaware they harbor unconscious biases, do not recognize situations in which unconscious bias may play a role in their decision-making, and  often hold conscious beliefs that are directly opposite of their unconscious bias. Unconscious biases are most prevalent in situations where individuals must make decisions based on an overwhelming amount of data, under time constraints. The brain uses unconscious biases as “shortcuts” to make decision-making easier and faster.

Though unconscious biases are universal — everybody has them to some extent— having them does not mean that a person is racist, sexist, ageist, etc. Unconscious biases can directly contradict consciously-held beliefs, and individuals can harbor biases against their own group. Awareness of the potential for unconscious bias in decision-making can mitigate its effects, although some biases are deeply rooted and can be difficult to eliminate.

Once people understand unconscious biases, they should not let a single experience or criterion determine an employee’s overall performance. They should ensure that specific criteria, based on skills and performance, are used to evaluate all candidates equally and fairly. Decisions should not be influenced by familiarity with the candidate or unrelated information. The person evaluating or assessing someone should step back and think about the candidate from an “outsider’s” perspective. Would an outsider agree with the logic?

The third step to root out bias — and, we believe, the most important — is ongoing, open, honest and direct boss-to-subordinate dialogue. This is a rare dynamic. What works is a value exchange model in performance management, where employer and employees both can set clear, tangible, unambiguous and reasonable expectations of one another. Once agreement is reached on expectations, it becomes a covenant. What makes this work is having ongoing discussions, using the covenant as the framework for the discussions. This model, we have found, can lift barriers to diversity, inclusion, fairness and equity.

Andrew Faas is a public voices fellow at Yale University and former senior executive of Canada’s two largest companies, Weston/Loblaw and Shoppers Drug Mart. He is author of “From Bully to Bull’s Eye: Move Your Organization Out of the Line of Fire.”

Shariq Yosufzai is chairman of the board of Aqua Metals. He retired after 43 years at Chevron in April 2018, most recently having been vice president of global diversity. He and Faas are co-CEOs of Accordant Advisors LLC, a management advisory group.