“When I speak with leaders about the process they take to
review resumes and to evaluate the candidates coming out of
interviews, I often hear things like, ‘They’re just not a fit,’ or ‘I
just have a gut feeling that this person won’t cut it here,’” said
Zigelstein-Yip. “When we try to dig a little deeper, there are no
reasonable hard facts to support why they don’t want to bring
a certain individual on board or to recruit them onto a certain
Removing that bias is a question of performance, ethics and
“To choose the best possible talent for an organization and for
a team, and to ensure compliance with the Human Rights Code
and AODA, we have to be able to substantiate why we’re choosing
certain candidates over others,” said Zigelstein-Yip.
THE PATH TO CULTURAL COMPETENCY
The term “cultural competency” has gained traction in recent
years, and in many ways it’s the flipside or the antidote to hidden
“Cultural competency means you have the foresight to be
inclusive of everybody,” said Zigelstein-Yip. “It’s more than diversity
and cultural sensitivity, although that’s part of the puzzle.
There is no ridding individuals or teams of biases without some
cultural sensitivity training.”
Cultural competency takes the foundation of diversity and
cultural sensitivity, and builds upon it.
“It’s layering on how you acknowledge and validate who people
are,” said Zigelstein-Yip.
“It’s about understanding cultural differences and seeing beyond
them, so that we’re best able to leverage the capability of
our talent and not just look at people through one lens – the
North American lens,” said Tombari. “For example, different
cultures may subscribe to different protocols. We may have individuals
from teams who don’t submit ideas unless they’re asked
to, or who are less prone to market themselves. If we know that,
we can work to draw out the best in everyone.”
HR’s role in coaching cultural competency is key.
“If you have candidates on a short list, for example, an HR
professional should help the hiring manager ensure the right
decision is made by challenging the outcomes, providing constructive
feedback and engaging people in a deeper dialogue to
address any unconscious bias,” said Tombari.
One effective way to set biases aside when making decisions is to
rely solely on objective information.
If, for example, senior executives are asked to select candidates
for a high potential program, it shouldn’t be a simple matter of
thinking about the team and jotting a few names down on paper.
“What we encourage clients to do, in this situation, is create
an objective method for assessing their talent. We look at four
key criteria for assessing potential so all candidates for the program
are evaluated on a level playing field. The assessment asks
a series of questions and everyone goes through the same rating
process,” said Zigelstein-Yip. “We’ve seen significant change
in those identified for high potential development due to this
objective method of assessing talent.”
In the case of restructuring or organizational transformation,
Zigelstein-Yip has similar advice.
“Age bias may be a factor in situations where leaders are thinking
that a particular employee or group of employees are closer
to retirement than they are, so the leaders believe it makes more
sense to let that person or those people go,” she said. But with
the end of mandatory retirement, this argument is faulty, and it’s
also a biased assumption that shouldn’t come into the equation.
“So what we recommend doing is looking at what you need
in your future business before you look at your talent,” said
Zigelstein-Yip. “Then, create an objective set of criteria to rate
every single employee on your team based on the exact same
criteria so you can make an informed decision as to the talent
you’ve decided to restructure. You have to be able to substantiate
why you chose particular people.”
It’s easy to imagine quantifying technical skills, but softer
skills can be effectively measured, as well.
“We look at behavioural competencies and determine which
ones are required for each role,” said Zigelstein-Yip. “Take teamwork,
for example. There are ways to define effective teamwork.
So we’ll design 10 or 11 questions about teamwork that will
determine whether an employee respects others’ opinions, collaborates
with others, shares their perspective and so on.”
With a culturally competent workforce, an organization is in a
position to take advantage of such things as diversity of thought
and differing viewpoints, methods of solving problems and making
“It really allows the talents to be in the driver’s seat. When
that happens, they’re free to bring their best selves to work every
day and push the envelope,” said Zigelstein-Yip. “With really
culturally competent workplaces, there’s an improved sense of
engagement and empowerment. Even things like risk taking and
innovation tend to come to the forefront compared to a less culturally
Conversely, a lack of cultural competency has a negative impact
on communication and how well people can genuinely connect.
“Biases affect relationships, they affect communication. It’s
tough to collaborate if you can’t communicate. And without collaboration,
it’s difficult to foster innovation. Ultimately, that has
a real impact on our competitiveness,” said Tombari. “We must
work to create an inclusive environment where talent is able to
contribute fully. It’s important to better serve our clients.”
NOT A QUICK FIX
Biases are developed over a lifetime, so working to identify and
mitigate them isn’t a weekend project.
“This isn’t an area where you offer one course and then it’s
all done. It’s really about embedding the approaches within the
talent-management and decision-making process,” said Tombari.
Certain changes do signal progress, though.
“It’s great to be at the table when a decision is being made and
someone asks, ‘Are we being biased? Do we have a blind spot?’”
20 ❚ JANUARY 2016 ❚ HR PROFESSIONAL