Recognizing and Overcoming Unconscious Biases in HR

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We all have unconscious biases — assumptions that shape how we think, act, and feel. Some biases can hold us back. But when we make explicit those implicit stereotypes that limit us, we are more able to recognize and overcome them.

I admit an unconscious bias in favor of HR as a value creator for employees, organizations, customers, investors, and communities. I believe (with solid research evidence) that HR practices can deliver sustainable value through individual competencies, organization capabilities, and leadership. I also find that HR professionals, for the most part, are both competent at and committed to delivering value.

However, as I have worked with thousands of HR professionals over many years in seminars and online, I recognize some of the unconscious biases that limit the full potential of HR (departments, practices, or professionals). Let me make these biases explicit so that they can be better overcome.

Bias → New Way of Thinking

Go into HR because you like people. → Go into HR to help people fulfill their potential.

When HR professionals are primarily known for “liking people”, they miss the full impact of HR on the business. HR is not just about liking people but about understanding people to solve people-related problems in organizations. HR should help people fulfill their potential through organizations where they live, work, and play. HR work often requires making tough people choices to ensure obtaining business results, and it also requires creating innovative people practices to liberate employees to perform their best. The HR bias about “liking people” can be replaced with a commitment to empowering people.

HR is all about talent (people, workforce, competence).  HR delivers both talent AND organization (culture, workplace, and capability).

When HR focuses only on talent, it limits what HR can deliver to help an organization succeed in the marketplace. Many in HR (either explicitly or implicitly) draw on a psychological conceptual foundation, working to understand how people think, act, and feel. These psychological principles often frame the HR people agenda. But increasingly, principles from sociology and economics expand this psychological bias. Sociological and economic disciplines focus more on collective actions, systems, and outcomes. I frequently share our research (see the book Victory Through Organization) that the quality of the organization (a more sociological concept) has four times the impact on business results than the quality of the people (a more psychological concept). The HR bias about talent can be enhanced with a commitment to creating better organizations.

HR’s customers are the employees inside the company.  HR’s primary customers are the customers of the company.

When HR only sees employees as their “customer”, they limit the impact of HR work on all stakeholders. When I ask HR professionals, “Who are your customers?”, I still get a preponderance who say “employees.” True, but this is an incomplete view. When HR recognizes and serves the customers of the business, they increase the likelihood that employees will have opportunities to have better work experiences. Without winning in the marketplace, there is no workplace. The HR bias of only serving employees may be replaced with a more complete focus on all stakeholders inside and out.

HR is about “soft” ideas, metrics, and skills.  HR decisions are increasingly based on rigorous research.

When HR relies on “soft” ideas, they are not perceived as rigorous as they actually are. A recent fascination to become more data-based has swept HR. But in fact, good HR has relied on data for years. Our book Strategic Human Resource Management has over 320 references, most relying on evidence-based HR. But too often the bias remains that HR is more art than science, feel than fact, and perception than evidence. The bias of personal opinion over evidence-based research continues when HR avoids or ignores data in decision making. The soft bias is also perpetuated when even thought-leaders in HR fail to build on previous research and recycle what has already been studied. Good research does not reinvent, but cumulate to build new insights. In addition, much of the current HR analytics is about HR for HR rather than HR for the business. As my colleague, Dick Beatty advocates, “The scorecard of HR is the business scorecard.” The HR bias to be “soft” is simply not valid for good HR, which should rely on both quantitative and qualitative data.

HR follows strategy.   HR enables strategy.

When HR only follows strategy, it may be seen as secondary to business impact. Another HR bias involves first doing strategy then doing HR to make it happen. In many cases, this is true, and HR delivers strategy by turning aspirations into actions. In these cases, HR practices like staffing, training, rewards, communication, and organization design institutionalize strategy. But in other cases, HR can enable strategy by understanding core competencies and leveraging those competencies to enter new markets. Disney’s theme parks give guests a delightful experience. This same experience can be had in cruise ships and retail stores. Likewise, Marriott’s hotel core competencies in lodging and food may be applied to Marriott Vacation Clubs. If HR is aware of the core competencies, they may enable the strategy by identifying new market opportunities for it. The bias of HR following strategy may be replaced with HR also shaping strategy by being more outside-in focused.

HR professionals support and advise.   HR professionals challenge and create.

When HR defines itself as a “support” function (which implies following, sustaining, and encouraging employees and leaders), it makes HR ancillary to business impact. A number of years ago, Bob Eichinger and I crafted the phrase, “HR with an attitude” to imply that HR professionals should act with bravery, courage, and assertiveness to propose and advocate new ideas. For years, we used the term “trusted advisor” to talk about this role; now we use the term “credible activist.” But many in HR still see themselves as advisors more than activists. The HR support bias may be replaced with HR advocacy actions.

HR focuses on policies about what cannot be done.  HR focuses on what can and should be done.

When HR primarily reinforces policies, they don’t create solutions to business challenges. Legacy HR was the policy—police to ensure compliance with regulations. Leaders would set an agenda then see if HR could support the agenda. This bias leaves HR looking to what is wrong more than what is right, to holding back future opportunities more than creating them. Today, good HR replaces the regulatory bias with guidance about what can be. The guidance focuses on the future, does not focus on the past, and offers pathways to create that future.

As I review these (and clearly other HR biases), I realize that HR is its own largest limitation to value creation. By challenging these biases, I hope HR departments, practices, and people can look forward to an ever-more impactful future.

So what are the HR biases you see that HR should recognize and overcome to create more value?

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Dave Ulrich, Rensis Likert Professor at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan and a partner at The RBL Group. He has published over 30 books and 200 articles/chapters that have shaped the fields of leadership to deliver results, of organizations to build capabilities, and of human resources to create value where he is the known as the “father of modern HR.” He has been named a top management thought leader in Business Week, Fortune, Financial Times, The Economist, and People Management, and is the recipient of many awards, including a Lifetime Achievement award from ASTD (now ATD).

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