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Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and the Annual Talent Review

Authored by: Roger Pearman and Robert Eichinger

Most organizations and leaders have the same people goals: productive diversity, treatment with equity and engaged inclusion of all individuals in the organization.

People are different. That’s what makes the goals above more interesting. Some differences (the ones targeted by popular Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programming) don’t make a difference in value or performance or potential. In other words, all targeted groups’ demographics are not relevant to considerations of performance and value to the organization. No matter who you are, your value and importance to leaders and organizations is related to how you perform.

Some differences do make a difference and are supported by science. Cognitive ability, or IQ, as demonstrated by 13 years of achievement in schooling can make a difference, depending upon the tasks that make up a job or role. Differences in interpersonal skills, again developed over 18-20 years of one’s life, might make a difference. Math skills might make a difference.

The basic proposition of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) initiatives is to make sure that the “differences that do not make a difference” for performance, like ethnicity, gender identification, body type, sexual preference, various physical and mental challenges that can be adapted to, plus others, do not play a role in making hiring, staffing, treatment, and opportunity decisions.

And, for differences that might matter, that these are supportable with information, analytics and science. That is, there are factors that are proven to matter.

Why isn’t this happening?  Bias.

Implicit and Explicit Bias

The individuals making decisions on opportunities have a preference for some differences that do not make a difference or, at a deeper level, hold biases against some of the human differences that simply are not relevant to performance. It is not rare to find a senior executive surrounded by old school chums of the same demographic background, same sex and ethnic origin. It’s executive cloning. It’s bias made manifest.

Bias against differences that do not make a difference comes in a number of forms.

There is a natural bias built into the way the brain operates. Part of the brain’s prime directive is to keep the box it comes in out of danger and harm. That means surrounding oneself with members of your own “group” because it is safer than mixing with individuals we know less about.  It’s bias toward individuals like me, who think like I do, and are connected to such an extent that we would defend one another when trouble surfaces. This implicit bias allows the brain to relax from its securities duties. Most are more comfortable being with “my people” than with mixed, unknown people.

There is explicit bias: Individuals who have a bias toward things that do not make a difference and may be vocal about it.  They might not like tattoos, visible body piercing,  dramatic hair color or styling, or anything they believe is unprofessional or meant to draw undue attention. Any or all of these are differences that don’t make a difference and that DE&I initiatives often will directly address.

Explicit bias is easier to address than implicit bias. Many who demonstrating implicit bias are unaware of it and would deny it if challenged.

Either kind of bias is a way of stereotyping–applying characteristics of one or a few to all members of that group. For example, assuming anyone with visible tattoos is just like anyone else with tattoos.  Many people of a type and class have little quality contact or experience with those of other types and classes. Therefore, scientifically, they have little basis on which to judge others of that other type and class, but they do anyway.

We see bias and stereotyping, both explicit and implicit, in hiring decisions, promotion decisions and opportunity decisions. The type and class of the decision makers choose fewer people from the members of other types and classes, denying equitable opportunities and treatment. This chills inclusion.

Bias is being aggressively addressed in hiring processes by the addition of best or better practices, and laws and regulations.  DE&I initiates are making a difference.  Having more diverse Boards is an example of progress. There are fewer announcements of “the first…” (a person of a type and class) to be or do something, such as the first black president, the first Mexican-American member of congress, or the first female CEO of a Fortune 100 company.  We are gradually leaving the land of “the firsts”.

Bias and Talent Reviews

One process in which we hear less about bias is the annual talent review. It’s an important event for the individuals running that process, the organization using it, and all possible individuals being evaluated.

One judgement being made by most is the extent of Potential (to learn and grow into a competent member of top management).  Being “on the list” has many benefits but also some danger. The danger is in being expected to learn faster and perform better than others.  If the decision about Potential for a candidate is a false positive, it can be very career disrupting. The benefits can be many but are all about having increased opportunities, such as being promoted faster, being assigned a coach, mentor and/or sponsor, or getting singled out to attend special events or meetings. A High Potential may get paid more, will get the attention of top executives, and more. If there is a false negative, in other words if they are a high potential but are not put on the list, there will also be career disruption.

The judgment about who is or isn’t a high potential is too often a subjective opinion by a boss, seconded and supported by the boss’s boss and maybe a talent management or HR professional.  It’s on a scale of pure and subjective opinion all the way to one of informed and educated judgment.  The latter happens through training, tools and experience on what differences make a difference, which can include workshops, valid assessment results, review of success profiles, checklists (and more) before and during the talent review.

The thing about having strong potential to learn and grow and to move into positions with greater responsibility are not impacted by the differences that do not make a difference.  Yet, the differences that do not make a difference are still making a difference, largely due to explicit and implicit bias and explicit and implicit stereotyping.

One fix to the bias problem is to provide much more information, context and decision-making criteria to those responsible for making the assessments and nominations.

The DE&I Talent Review Initiative

The DE&I Talent Review Initiative is already enabled because it is near “settled science” what the characteristics are of people with strong Potential. And none of the best practice characteristics are correlated to the differences that do not matter.

Decision makers, more than ever before, can be better informed and educated about what to look for as they make their calibrated decisions. That is, all of the characteristics of people with strong Potential can be observed by informed and educated observers. To chill the biases, using objective surveys, questionnaires or checklists is going to be the next best practice.

We have one such survey called the KSAP R.A.N.D. Survey.  KSAP is the Knowledge, Skills and Attributes of people with strong Potential.  It contains the most complete set of characteristics research and experience has provided to date.  The survey results provide the R.A.N.D. score – a percentile prediction of how much potential the target person has.  Best practice is to have two people (boss, boss’s boss, mentor, sponsor, HR professional) fill out the survey on each considered target. Having two raters help mitigate any remaining bias, though the R.A.N.D. report helps identify when bias is present.

The KSAP R.A.N.D. survey (and its predecessors CHOICES® and viaEDGE®) have shown that the differences that do not make a difference, do not make a difference. It can be used to inform decisions or even be the final arbiter on decisions about Potential.

Additionally, R.A.N.D. leads to very productive debate during the scrubbing discussions.  The survey results can be used to debate a possible false positive, for example, “show me the ratings of characteristics I have also observed”, and especially for false negatives, for example, “show me why they are not more highly rated on characteristics I have observed”.

KSAP R.A.N.D., and other tools like it, can be an additional and highly impactful tool utilized by the drivers of those striving to meet DE&I goals. Mitigating bias in making decisions about types and classes of individuals has to be part of talent planning.

Providing equitable opportunity is the result.

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