Addressing bias in nonprofit organizations and charities

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Tim Wise, an anti-racism educator from the United States, gave the keynote address for day one of the Workplace Inclusion Conference held in Toronto March 27 and 28, 2014.

In his keynote address, Wise noted that organizations need to strive for more than simply being diverse. He believes in diversity, "but I believe in it like I believe in air. Air simply is." He further commented that an organization that says it is committed to diversity, isn't saying much. Wise went on to explain that too often organizations talk about diversity - "which means everything and nothing at all" - as a way to avoid having much more meaningful conversations about equity and inclusion.

In order to make real change, organizations must do more to examine their internal structures and attitudes among managers and employees that result in inequality. This may mean unlearning much of what society and our cultures have taught us. Most of us were led to believe that racism, sexism, homophobia, and the other isms, are overt and obvious. We expect that we are able to see them when they are happening.

The reality today is that, in today's world, the biggest challenges to achieving equity really aren't so obvious. Wise identified three myths permeating organizations that get in the way of our ability to achieve real equity in organizations.

1. Myth of personal objectivity

Most of us believe that we are fair-minded and able to objectively evaluate job applicants. However, virtually all of the research studies done in this area show that this is a myth. Our assessment of who is qualified and who isn't is influenced by the applicant's gender, race and other personal characteristics unrelated to the candidates' skills and abilities to do the job.

Various research studies show that we all have unconscious biases that have become engrained through instinct, or which we have learned through society, our culture, our upbringing, and which are influenced by our personal filters. These biases affect how we judge and assess others on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, disability status, body type, and other personal characteristics. Unfortunately, these biases come out when we are put in the position to evaluate others, such as when making a hiring decision. In these situations, our stereotype buttons get pushed and influence our decisions, and most of the time we don't even know it is happening.

Wise referenced one study that took White people who held relatively liberal beliefs and hooked them up to brain scan imaging machines. In this study, various images were flashed, such as a blade of grass, puppies, etc., for 85 milliseconds - long enough for the unconscious mind to see it and react, but not long enough for the image to register in the participants' conscious minds. The reaction of the person's brain to the image was then assessed. When an image of a Black man’s face was flashed, the part of the brain that responds to fear and anxiety lit up in 90% of study participants. When the image was replaced with an innocuous image such as a blade of grass, the fear response in the brain went away. The study shows that Whites are conditioned on some level to respond with fear and anxiety to the mere presence of a Black man. This and many other studies suggest that our culturally-learned association between Black men and potential threat is so strong it occurs at the unconscious level.

The question for us is, how does this translate to the hiring process? Are we actually able to assess candidates objectively when we are conditioned to react like that on a subconscious level? What is the impact when reviewing resumes with a name that suggests that the applicants is a Black man? What is the impact when a Black man enters the interview room? What does this mean when making a hiring decision?

Various studies that examine bias in the hiring process show how our unconscious biases affect hiring decisions in the real world, including:

  • When assessing resumes of equally qualified men and women for male-dominated occupations, men are deemed to be more qualified than women, and when deciding between equally qualified men and women, both men and women are more likely to recommend that the male applicant be hired.
  • Applicants with Black-sounding names (e.g. Latoya, Aisha, Jamal, Leroy) were 50% less likely to get a callback, compared with applicants with White-sounding names (e.g. Kristen, Jill, Greg, Brad); and, young Black men with no criminal record fared no better than young White men with criminal records when seeking entry-level jobs.
  • Applicants with "ethnic-sounding" names are less likely to be invited for a job interview, regardless of whether they are educated in Canada or elsewhere.
  • Job candidates with an "ethnic" name and speaking with an accent are viewed less positively than those without either an "ethnic" name or an accent.
  • Job candidates with a first language other than English, are expected to have language ability far out of step with the language requirements of the job.

Virtually all of the evidence with respect to the hiring process and how hiring decisions are made tells us very clearly that the assumption of objectivity in the hiring process is a myth. These studies show that while our explicit expression of prejudice has been declining, implicit prejudice remains. Wise suggests that the faster we understand this, the quicker and better we will be able to create more equitable hiring processes.

2. Myth of institutional objectivity

Wise also noted that sometimes the barrier to equity is systemic and embedded in the organization's policies and practices. As such, the notion that institutions are objective and hire the best person for the job is a often a myth. The reality is that the criteria or process that we use to evaluate job candidates may create unequal outcomes for different groups of people, regardless of their qualifications, skills, and abilities. It is therefore necessary, but not sufficient to identify and address the biases the individuals doing the hiring may have. Biases and barriers within the organizational structures also need to be identified and removed.

In our work, we often find systemic barriers embedded in the hiring process with respect to whether open competitions are held to fill positions, how the job is advertised, how applicants are screened to determine who is invited for an interview, the interview questions that are asked, how candidates are scored, and how the final hiring decision is made. While all organizations say that "we hire the best candidate," in reality the hiring process is not always structured to allow the best candidate to be identified.

3. Myth of fairness

The final myth that Wise identified is the myth of fairness. He noted that everyone likes to believe that our organizations are fair. While they may get it wrong at times, we believe that, for the most part, the organization is fair.

But, he notes that studies show that the way people get jobs and move up within organizations has little to do with fairness - even in public sector and nonprofit organizations. He referenced a US study that found that almost half of new jobs were filled by referrals from existing employees in organizations. This reliance on internal recommendations to fill job openings excludes a lot of people, regardless of their skills and abilities.

While hiring managers may argue that hiring someone they know - either someone with whom they've previously worked, a personal friend, or a family member - makes the job search quicker and easier, this undermines the organization's commitment to fairness and equity. In addition, when such large segments of the population are excluded from even being considered for job openings, how can we even say that we've truly "hired the best"?

Takeaways for the organization

So, what does this mean for an organization trying to make its commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion a reality?

Tim Wise noted that organizations need to build in policies, practices and procedures to safeguard against having biases become discriminatory treatment. He suggests that we need to "interrupt the thought before it becomes the deed."

The research tells us that there are various things that organizations can do to structure the hiring process to more objectively and fairly assess job applicants and truly hire "the best person" for the job. These include:

  • Raise the awareness of human resource staff and hiring managers about unconscious bias and the impact it has on the hiring process and their individual hiring decisions. This can be done through training as well as by developing a one-page reminder to hiring panels as they begin the interview process.
  • Review the selection criteria used to pre-screen applications, as well as those used to assess the candidates in interviews and tests, to ensure that they reflect bona fide job requirements.
  • Use tools to ensure an objective and fair comparison of each job applicant against set criteria to determine who to invite for an interview. Use tools to record each interviewee's responses and score these responses against appropriate responses to each question.
  • Use an interview panel that is diverse, both in terms of gender, ethnicity and other dimensions of diversity.
  • Allow sufficient time between interviews to discuss and score each candidate.
  • Use consensus scoring rather than average scoring when assessing candidates. The research shows that consensus scoring leads to a more fair and objective assessment of candidates. For example, have each panel member discuss their score and come to an agreement about the final score for each candidate for each question. When each panel member knows that they will have to justify their scoring, they are more likely to fairly assess each job candidate.
  • Monitor outcomes of hiring decisions. The evidence of whether there is bias in the organization's hiring practices will be in the data. Organizations will be able to identify what more needs to be done by examining the composition of their workforce and comparing that to the external labour market.
  • Anonymize the resumes. When the candidate's name is blacked out, the hiring manager is forced to pay closer attention to the candidate's skills and abilities to determine who to invite for an interview.
  • Use micro-affirmations, such as smiling, nodding, leaning toward the candidate, and eye contact, to support all candidates, not just those who are more similar to us.

Tim Wise's keynote address can be viewed here:



Tana Turner is Principal of Turner Consulting Group Inc., an equity, diversity and inclusion consultancy firm in Toronto. Learn more at

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