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An Appeal to Our Inner Judge

Some months ago I was in the Memphis airport preparing to fly to New York. While I was sitting at the gate, the gate agent
announced that our flight had been delayed 45 minutes. Almost immediately, a voice bellowed from behind me in a deep
Southern accent. You talkin to us, lady?
I turned and saw a man I would best describe as Santa Claus with an attitude: mid-60s, white beard and hair, wearing overalls
and a flannel shirt, car magazine in hand. I have to admit that I thought I had him pegged as if his whole life experience could
be summed up and understood in that moment.
When it was time to board the plane, I walked to my aisle seat. And who should be sitting in the window seat but angry Santa
himself. Once we had taken off, I did some work on my computer, and my neighbor read his car magazine. We kept to ourselves
for the majority of the flight.
As we approached New York, the pilot announced our final
descent. Experienced fliers know this is the time when
airplane chat often takes place because it is safe to start a
conversation without fear of getting stuck talking to
somebody for two hours. Turning, I asked him, What takes
you to New York?
Im going to a professional meeting, he responded. When
I asked him what he did for a living, he answered that he
was a radiologist.
Despite being a diversity consultant with 30 years of
experience, Im embarrassed to admit that the guy I had
perceived as a person of lesser education was, in fact, a
And my surprise didnt stop there. When I asked if he had a
particular area of interest within radiology, he said he was
using active brain scans to examine how humans
responded to stimuli, especially when they interacted with different types of people. It turned out that he was working in an area
that was especially interesting to me. If it hadnt been for my immediate stereotyping of him, I might have learned many new
things about the brain during that nearly three-hour flight.
Youd think that as the founder of Cook Ross, an international diversity consulting company, I would have known better, yet the
unconscious mind plays tricks on all of us in that way. Every day, our biases determine what we see and how we judge those
around us.
Bias is nothing new. It can show up in the way we perceive someones race, gender, age, disability, dress, accent, speech
patterns, mannerisms and so on. For the most part, we tend to view it as a result of peoples intention to hurt others. However,
neurocognitive research confirms that bias may very well be as normal to humans as breathing. Studies have confirmed that
people have biases about almost every dimension of human identity. Virtually everyone has them, and overwhelmingly they are
Yes, there is plenty of conscious bias. But focusing so much of our energy on combating conscious discrimination can create
greater defensiveness on the part of people who are accused of bias when they dont even know they are being affected by it.
And when unconscious bias influences things like hiring decisions, it may not only be unfair but also put companies at a
competitive disadvantage.
Think about it. How many times have you met people for the first time, perhaps in an interview or at a meeting, and made certain
assumptions about them the way I did with Dr. Santa and then found out the assumptions were wrong?
The good news is that while it may not be possible to eliminate bias, there appear to be ways to identify and navigate it. First,
recognize and accept that you have biases. Rather than feel guilty about them, take responsibility for them. Once you accept
them, you can begin to limit their impact.
To do so, you must develop the capacity to observe yourself in action and to notice when certain people or circumstances serve
as triggers. When you meet a job candidate, you may want to stop and ask yourself, What am I already making up about this
person before we have even had a chance to speak?
It is helpful to begin to practice what I call constructive uncertainty. Learning to slow down decision-making, especially when it
affects other people, can help reduce the impact of bias. This can be particularly important when we are in circumstances that
make us feel awkward or uncomfortable. Try to interact regularly with and learn about people and groups toward whom you may
show bias, and expose yourself to positive role models within those groups.
Finally, look at how you make decisions. Do you interview some people in the office and some over lunch? Some in the
morning, when youre fresh, and others at the end of the day, when youre tired? Those factors could very well affect the way
you perceive interviewees.
Recognizing that bias is always present and giving some thought to both your internal reactions and your external behavior will
not only prevent discriminatory practices but also lead to better personal and business decisions. After all, the Santa who
walks into your office could be the best employee youve ever had.