Removing Barriers Part 3

A Key to Applying the Principles of Fair Assessment

The Principles of Fair Assessment provide guidance to managers and human resource personnel in making some of the many choices and decisions required in a selection process. However, putting the Principles into practice can be challenging because people are subject to personal and cultural biases. A key to reducing bias in assessment, and fully applying the Principles of Fair Assessment, is to increase one's awareness of the nature and sources of bias.

Why increased awareness is required to apply the Principles

When defining job duties, without realizing it, a manager may believe that "his way" or "her way" is the only way in which job duties can be effectively performed. This manager cannot truly apply Principle 1, "When reviewing the work to be done, take into account the diverse ways in which the work can be accomplished," without first having some awareness that he or she may be making assumptions about the work that are in part culturally determined and not universally shared. Similarly, applying Principle 6, "Evaluate candidates' qualifications based on work-related assessment criteria, avoiding sources of potential bias," requires that each manager and Selection Board member be aware of his or her own potential biases, such as racial stereotypes, in order to control their influence on the accuracy of assessment.

In order to apply the Principles of Fair Assessment in a culturally and racially diverse workplace it is important to have an understanding of:

  • culture and its influence on workplace values and behaviour,
  • ways to recognize and reduce cultural bias in assessment,
  • ways to improve communication across cultures,
  • personal bias and prejudice in assessment, and
  • how these can be controlled to eliminate discrimination and increase the accuracy of assessment.

These topics are discussed below.

Be aware that your workplace values and behaviours are influenced by your culture

Culture is something that all of us learn from birth. It is not something that certain people and groups have, and others do not.

Culture can be described as being comprised of the learned values and behaviours shared by a group.

  • Values are ideas, attitudes, assumptions and beliefs to which strong feelings are attached.
  • Behaviours are outward expressions of values.

Although these shared values and behaviours can be observed among people from the same cultural group, individual diversity exists even among those who share the same cultural background. In addition, cultures also change over time and through contact with other cultures.

Both at work and outside of work, people's thoughts, feelings, actions, reactions, and values are influenced by their personal characteristics and by their culture. For example, certain cultures place a high value on aspiring to change things, demonstrating linear thinking, and meeting conflict head on; other cultures place a higher value on prudently accepting things as they are, demonstrating holistic thinking, and avoiding conflict. As a result, people with different cultural backgrounds may have different understandings of what is appropriate or desirable at work.

Be aware that cultural bias can reduce the fairness of assessment

Being aware of one's own culture and understanding how it influences one's workplace values and behaviours can go a long way toward deepening one's understanding of cultural diversity in the workplace. This is also essential for recognizing and reducing sources of cultural bias in assessment. People typically feel most comfortable with, and understand most clearly, the values and behaviours of their own culture. People tend to be less familiar with the values and behaviours of other cultures. When working with or evaluating the qualifications of people of other cultures, they may view less familiar values and behaviours as unusual and not of equal value to those of their own culture.

How to reduce the effects of cultural bias

Whenever possible, involve people from diverse cultural backgrounds or experts in cultural diversity in the assessment process. This will help to ensure that culturally-based assumptions in the definition of work and qualifications, or in assessment instruments are identified and addressed. For example, defining the work and qualifications, and developing assessment instruments can be accomplished by team members from diverse backgrounds or the results can be reviewed by experts in cultural diversity. Selection Boards with diverse members empowered to facilitate fair assessment can contribute to better communication between the Board and the candidate, and reduce cultural bias in the evaluation of candidates.

Be aware that communication is influenced by culture

The interview is one of the most commonly used assessment methods for gathering information on candidates' qualifications (Principle 5). Managers rarely hire people without first meeting them to discuss their qualifications. As the Canadian population becomes increasingly diverse, candidates and board members from diverse cultures engage in cross-cultural communication.

Suggestions to facilitate cross-cultural communication

The following suggestions can facilitate effective two-way communication between candidates and board members of various cultural backgrounds.

  1. Remember that each person is a unique individual who cannot be understood solely on the basis of the group to which the person belongs, or to which you assume the person belongs. Avoid making assumptions about a candidate's background, values and behaviours on the basis of visible racial, ethnic or religious characteristics, a person's name, or accent. For example, an Aboriginal man with braided hair may be a traditional elder, or may be a nationally-known urban professional, or both. As another example, a candidate named Lisa Zhao may or may not be of Asian descent, may be a fourth generation Canadian citizen or recently arrived in Canada, and may or may not share cultural values and behaviours that many associate with Asian cultures (e.g., reluctance to disclose one's own strong points).
  2. When you observe behaviour that you do not understand, there may or may not be a cultural explanation. If the behaviour is not relevant to the qualification you are assessing, disregard it. If the behaviour is relevant, seek out information to better understand it. For example, if you are not sure that you have understood the meaning of what the candidate has said, paraphrase to seek clarification and understanding. If a candidate's response to a question seems to you to be off topic, ask yourself "What, if anything, am I being told here indirectly?"
  3. Adjust your behaviour to the candidate, while still being yourself. Board members are responsible for providing all candidates with an equal opportunity to demonstrate their qualifications. This can mean adjusting your behaviour to facilitate a candidate's demonstration of competencies. However, when adapting to the candidate you should not go so far as to obviously identify with or imitate the communication style of the person being assessed. For example, if a candidate is clearly ill at ease at the start of the interview, board members can adapt by taking a few extra minutes to establish rapport with the candidate. However, it could be considered condescending and patronizing for a board member of any culture to adjust his or her pattern of eye contact or speaking cadence to resemble that of a candidate from a different culture.
  4. Cultures vary in the meanings they ascribe to various aspects of verbal and non-verbal behaviour. For example, patterns of eye contact, silence, and nodding can mean different things in different cultures. This is also true of behaviours that people demonstrate in social greetings and leave taking. Cultures also differ in the nature and degree of emotional expression considered appropriate in varied settings, in the level of detail considered appropriate when responding to questions, and in the appropriateness of highlighting one's accomplishments. Given these differences, it is important to resist the natural temptation to evaluate a candidate based on your own cultural values. For example, in some cultures a firm handshake and expressed pleasure are often interpreted as signs of sincerity, confidence and good will. In other cultures, a soft-spoken hello or nod is considered more appropriate. Do not judge a candidate's qualifications based on irrelevant differences in verbal and non-verbal behaviour. When assessing a candidate's qualifications, you should consider a cultural difference in verbal and non-verbal behaviours only if the behaviour in question can be interpreted unambiguously and is clearly relevant to the assessment of a bona fide occupational requirement.
  5. Training of Selection Board members in cross-cultural communication and diversity in general can contribute to enhanced two-way communication between candidates and board members.

It is critical that interviewers show respect and understanding in every interview. There are tens of thousands of cultures and sub-cultures; no one can know them all, or the differences among them. However, demonstrating respect, warmth and empathy will go a long way toward facilitating inter-cultural communication, and ensuring the fair assessment of all candidates.

Be aware of your own potential biases and prejudices

As previously noted, all people can be influenced by personal biases. Such biases can take the form of conscious or unconscious prejudice and discrimination. Personal biases can have an impact at any stage in the selection process, but perhaps most particularly when evaluating candidates' qualifications (Principle 6).

A first step in eliminating the possible influence of personal biases in assessment is to have a clear understanding of the meaning of prejudice and discrimination, and of the ways they can influence assessment without one's conscious awareness.

Prejudice is a conscious or unconscious pre-judgment of others based on their real or assumed membership in a particular group (e.g., racial or cultural group). Most prejudices are against, rather than for other groups or individuals.

Discrimination is the behavioural expression of prejudice: it is the act of differential treatment of an individual or group (intentionally or unintentionally) that usually creates a disadvantage for that individual or group.

One of the disconcerting aspects of prejudice is that most people will recognize its effect on human behaviour, but few people are willing to acknowledge their own personal biases. For example, people tend to be more perceptive in identifying prejudices among their colleagues and friends, and less perceptive in recognizing their own prejudicial attitudes and beliefs. Difficulty in acknowledging personal prejudice can be partly attributed to systemic factors. For example, pervasive and stereotypic portrayals of certain groups in the media can reinforce the erroneous belief that one's personal biases about these groups are not biases but an accurate reflection of reality. Personal prejudices, reinforced by systemic factors, tend to go unchallenged unless individuals actively attempt to increase their self-awareness and control these prejudicial attitudes and beliefs.

In summary, most people are not completely aware of their own personal biases. As a result, a board member with unconscious prejudices may create as firm a barrier to certain candidates as a board member who has a strong and conscious prejudice against a certain group. Therefore, it is essential that those who are responsible for assessing candidates' qualifications have a keen awareness of their personal attitudes about groups other than their own, and that they take steps to reduce or control the influence of such attitudes.

Heightening self-awareness and controlling prejudice

There are various ways to become aware of one's own biases and prejudices. One way is to ask yourself questions such as:

  • Are there any groups whose members, in principle, I would not invite into my home, or include in my circle of friends?
  • What groups do I perceive as most different from myself? Why do I perceive them as different? How might this affect my evaluation of their qualifications if they were candidates in a selection process?
  • Are there any groups that I prefer to associate or work with based solely on such characteristics as race, religion or culture? (Sometimes subtle prejudice can underlie preferences based on group membership alone; for example, preferring to work with Asian women because of the belief that they are less assertive than Caucasian women.)

Other insights into personal prejudices may be gained by analyzing personal reactions to culturally-relevant issues such as interracial marriage, Canada's immigration policies, Aboriginal rights issues, employment equity, etc. Questioning government policy or "conventional wisdom" is not a sure sign of prejudice. However, if your conclusions lead you to think that you have attitudes that may influence the accuracy of the evaluations you make in selection processes, you should ask yourself about measures you can take to become more objective about members of certain groups.

Various ways to reduce prejudice are available. For example, you can use your emotional reactions (positive and negative) to alert you to the possibility that subjective values may be at play and that alternate interpretations may be possible. You can also acknowledge and seek information to disprove the stereotypes and prejudices you have about others. Voluntary attendance at a workshop or seminar on diversity, or working on a shared objective with people of other races or cultures can also provide opportunities to perceive and control biases you may hold about other groups.

Workshops and training related to diversity may be offered periodically by your organization. In addition, some unions - such as the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) - provide information and courses relevant to diversity.

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