CPA firms working to encourage diversity in the profession often run into a nettlesome problem called unconscious bias. If left unaddressed, it can affect everything from hiring to promotions to project assignments—and potentially could derail well-intentioned efforts at promoting diversity.
Unconscious bias is a tendency to let stereotypes unwittingly sway decision-making. While biases are not innately harmful in and of themselves, they can perpetuate inequities if people act on them and unwittingly give preferential treatment to members of certain groups.
“Biases are nothing more than preferences,” said Manny Espinoza, president of the CTR Factor Inc., a firm that offers diversity and inclusion consulting and training. “Your experiences lead you to have certain preferences.”
Understanding your own biases can help you mitigate any unintended negative effects they might cause. But, as the name implies, it can be difficult for people to identify their own unconscious biases.
“People need to understand that it exists and it is impacting every decision that we make,” Espinoza said.
To help CPAs, the AICPA is providing a free, three-part webinar series on the theory of unconscious bias. This webinar is being presented by Espinoza and Suri Surinder, CEO of the CTR Factor, and is based on an unconscious bias course offered by their consulting and training group.
During a recent webinar session, Surinder and Espinoza posed several questions designed to help individuals and organizations uncover their biases. Answer them for yourself—or for your firm—to see what kind of biases you may hold:
1. Three candidates are the front-runners for an open position. They all meet the minimum requirements. Below are unique aspects of their background:
- Person 1 has 10 years of experience at a Big Four accounting firm and graduated with honors from DePaul University.
- Person 2 has 12 years of experience in accounting at Kraft Foods, is bilingual, and graduated from Kelley School of Business at Indiana University.
- Person 3 has a couple of years of experience at a midtier accounting firm, graduated from Howard University, and is new to your town.
Who is most likely to be selected for the open position?
This question is designed to unveil unconscious bias in hiring decisions. It asks companies to choose between candidates with a different mix of attributes so that they can weigh the attributes (here, experience, education, and language proficiency) and decide which matter most to them. “By mixing and matching different attributes, the question forces companies to make picks that reveal their unconscious biases,” Surinder said.
When many CPAs at public accounting firms answered this question, they “saw ‘Big Four’ and zeroed in on that,” Espinoza said. However, he noted, your personal background may affect how you answer: “But if you as a person did not go to a Big Four firm and went to work for Kraft Foods, you’d probably pick the person who worked at Kraft Foods.”
2. A team is being formed to deliver a special project. The project has generated a high interest among employees. Who is most likely to be picked for the team?
- Person 1 has a reputation as a go-getter—someone who takes initiative. Has a good track record of success.
- Person 2 has been described by some as shy, but by others as introverted. Delivers excellent results.
- Person 3 is considered a rising star. Described by many as high-potential.
This question helps companies see which attributes they value when putting an employee in a potentially career-changing situation. “The people who get placed on visible projects tend to move up if they do well, so we picked this situation because it is a high-impact precursor to advancement and promotion,” Surinder said.
The example also lets companies see what their unconscious biases are around temperament and performance vs. potential.
“A lot of people will pick those who look like them or that have the same kind of personality and similar experiences” for key tasks, Espinoza said. But these people may not be the right fit for the job, and thus firms need to consider other factors as well. “The biggest factor is getting a different perspective or opinion on the task at hand,” he added. “Sometimes a person who challenges your perspective helps you to arrive at a better solution. A person that is different from you as it relates to background and experiences may offer some insights that you were not aware of. Diversity of thought is powerful.”
3. A new leadership program has been created for individual contributors aspiring to become managers. It is believed to almost guarantee promotion. Space is limited. Who is most likely to be invited to the leadership program?
- Person 1 is a Millennial with less than two years tenure with the firm.
- Person 2 is a Gen-Xer with more than five years’ experience with the firm, who speaks English as a second language.
- Person 3 is a Baby Boomer who rejoined the workforce after a long leave and who used to be a manager before leaving.
A leadership program gives a good indicator of who will advance in the firm, and this question focuses on a person’s (or company’s) perception of age. This question helps employees learn if their firm favors a certain generation or perceived length of career. “Do you pick a Millennial who has relatively little experience but a lot of runway? Or do you pick a Gen-Xer who has moderate experience, or a Baby Boomer who has had a lot of experience but a shorter runway?” Surinder said.
4. A team is tackling a tough business issue. The decision is made to run the initial agreement by a “key person” outside of the team. Who is most likely to be consulted?
- Person 1: A high-ranking leader from the same practice.
- Person 2: A highly respected leader from a different practice.
- Person 3: A colleague outside of the firm, whose background suggests he or she may have a critical input.
This question tries to determine whether a firm is focused on its own practice or a different practice when a tough business issue needs to be addressed.There is no right or wrong answer to this question, and people who answer it will have different perspectives depending on their relationships and experiences.
While there are many other questions that can be posed, these questions provide a glimpse of the potential impact of unconscious bias in the workplace and make people think about their personal preferences and the decisions of their firms.
“The insight and awareness that is gained through the study of unconscious bias can be transformative for both individuals and organizations,” said Anthony Newkirk, senior manager of diversity and inclusion at the AICPA. “The knowledge that is gained through this information expands the consciousness of professionals, allowing them to embrace a broader range of people and ideas that leads to greater business success.”
Cheryl Meyer is a freelance writer based in California. To comment on this story, email Chris Baysden , senior manager–magazines & newsletters at the AICPA.