How CPA firms can counteract unconscious bias

Once biases are ingrained, it is often tough to admit we have them, and even more difficult to unlearn them.
By Cheryl Meyer

If you need to hire a staff accountant, ask yourself these questions: Would you hire someone who mirrors you in terms of race, geographic origin, college education, or gender? Or would you turn a blind eye to differences and simply hire the best candidate based on previously established, objective criteria?

Though we like to think we’re impartial in our decision-making, it’s often the case that our unconscious beliefs affect our choices. “We tend to be drawn to people who are like us and move away from people who are not like us,” said Suri Surinder, CEO of the CTR Factor Inc., a firm that offers diversity and inclusion consulting and training.

Everyone has unconscious attitudes that stem from our ethnic origin, gender, age, experiences, and the culture we inhabit. And once biases are ingrained, it is often tough to admit we have them, and even more difficult to unlearn them.

The concept that we have a tendency to be unknowingly influenced in decision-making by these stereotypes is known as “unconscious bias.”

“Those stereotypes cause us to have a bias toward people and influence who we engage and who we don’t engage,” said Anthony Newkirk, senior manager of diversity and inclusion at the AICPA.

Now, a better understanding of unconscious bias is changing the way businesses evaluate their decision- making on hiring, promotions, job assignments, retention, and even customer service.

That’s because if they’re ignored, unconscious biases can creep into organizations and breed favoritism and unfair treatment, which can lead to internal discord. Biases can also influence how employees treat clients. And biases can cause managers and leaders to make poor hiring or promotional decisions, or create an environment that lacks diversity of thought, which can foil innovation and collaboration.

“Most organizations can do a better job of employing a diverse workforce,” said Carlee Beth Hawkins, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Illinois–Springfield, and a researcher with Project Implicit, a virtual laboratory focused on unconscious bias.

Fortunately, there are many ways CPAs can counteract the negative impact of unconscious bias in the workplace:

Make sure your firm’s leaders are on board. Acknowledging your unconscious, or implicit, biases is the first step in combating them, followed by education and training. “Without buy-in from leadership of an organization and real changes to policies and practices,” Hawkins said, “training that focuses on unconscious bias—or diversity training in general—is unlikely to be effective.”

Conduct an organizational assessment and hold periodic training sessions. Organizations can assess their culture and employees’ perceptions around bias, diversity, and inclusion through surveys and organizational culture assessments, Newkirk said. However, it is important to respond to the results of surveys and assessments by taking actions such as conducting management training, employee training, and focus groups, as well as changing policies and practices or including groups that do not feel included in the workplace culture and its processes, he noted.

In addition, “People have to be reminded of unconscious bias,” said Manny Espinoza, president of the CTR Factor. “Therefore, unconscious bias training just before promotions and hiring decisions may lead to more objective decisions.”

Present data that grabs people’s attention. Organizations need to collect data and “identify the situations where implicit bias is most likely to influence decision-making and behavior” in an organization, Hawkins said.

In addition, it’s important to give concrete examples. “Unconscious bias is not about intent—it is about impact,” or what a person may do wrong “as a result of unconscious bias,” Surinder said. “Similar examples may be pointed out in other decisions like hiring, promoting, selecting, nominating.”

Establish processes that eliminate factors that can lead to unconscious bias. For instance, some companies are removing items on résumés that can lead to biased hiring decisions. These items can include candidates’ names, the names of the universities they attended, and even addresses, Surinder said.

Be culturally intelligent. Today’s society is diverse and multicultural, and it’s important to learn and be curious about other cultures. “Expand your capacity to adapt, and use your cultural knowledge as a skill set to enable you to effectively engage differences,” Newkirk said.

Be deliberate. When you need to make crucial decisions, slow down. “Decisions made quickly or under stress or fatigue are more likely to be influenced by implicit bias,” Hawkins said.

Make group decisions. Key decisions for the organization should be made by a group of people who offer a diversity of thought. “You will find out that such decisions tend to be much more objective,” Surinder said.

Be aware of favoritism. “Do you often cut one person (or one group of people) slack but come down hard on another?” asked Hawkins. “Do you offer challenging projects to one person (or group of people) and give easier ones to another?” Instead, distribute praise and opportunities to all top performers.

Make sure decision-making processes are clear-cut. “Create concrete and strict criteria” for key procedures such as evaluating job candidates, making promotion decisions, and assigning projects, Hawkins said, noting that you should not change the criteria after you know who the top candidates are.

Be aware that unconscious bias exists and attempt to unlearn behaviors. Unconscious bias doesn’t have to exhibit itself as a malicious trait. It is a way of thinking that is ingrained and should be a topic of conversation. Be humble and candid with yourself and others. “Acknowledge your stereotypes and prejudices,” Newkirk said. “Be honest, and open yourself to change.” 

Cheryl Meyer

Cheryl Meyer is a California-based freelance writer.

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