In Conversation with Jen Nightingale, VP TalentLens

How do we ensure assessments don’t reinforce systemic bias?

By definition, systemic bias is having processes and policies that systematically exclude members of a particular group, or that give preference to members of another group, regardless of whether they are the most qualified- it is institutional in nature, and we see many examples of systemic bias in organizations and in all number of applications. As compared to unconscious biases that are upheld by individuals; both can have negative impact on a whole host of things. It is by using assessments that we can ensure objectivity, they reduce the risk of bias, and that is extremely important when holding yourself and your organization accountable to a fair and equitable selection process. However, I would never recommend using an assessment in isolation. It is an important part of a thorough and insightful process, but equally important are other forms of evaluating potential and a possible relationship like team interviews, interview tasks, targeted conversation, or even having lunch with your candidates! We need to be mindful however that these latter techniques are more vulnerable to our personal and unconscious biases, so again it is extremely important to combine an objective and subjective approach to hiring. The goal is to use a variety of measures to ensure you avoid generalized bias. You want to use a thorough process that evaluates skills related to the job you are hiring for and your overarching goal in that process is to ensure the candidate you hire is set up for job success and career success within your organization.

I believe it all starts with a thorough job analysis, a deep understanding of the skills and the entire range of competencies required to be successful in the role. You can also consider, a comprehensive understanding of the behaviours and traits that have been found to benefit an individual in a specific role that will naturally translate into true happiness in the job, and culture fit. If you have successful employees in the role now, take the time to understand their profiles…at the end of the day you want to establish a successful fit for everyone involved while welcoming the unique differences of individuals that will drive innovation and diversity. There is a lot that can be learned by studying the job itself, your existing workforce, current performance, desired performance in order to establish your end to end selection strategy and your criteria.

I personally favour the use of personality and ability assessments along with person to person methods of establishing rapport and culture fit, including understanding one’s motivations and interests. I have found over the years that I am less interested in seeing one’s resume and that there is a far greater resume bias or opportunity bias that shows up when evaluating the resume. Aside from establishing requirements of credentialing, like in your example of nursing, we tend to use the resume as a screener and I believe that there is a lot of great talent that we overlook when we do that. When we read that resume, we are unconsciously or consciously evaluating or ranking one’s experiences or opportunities in life…not necessarily one’s skills. To create a more diverse workforce, let’s place greater importance on an objective assessment vs a resume, otherwise, individuals who have had more opportunities, or who have had a more favourable socio-economic life experience will continue to be advantaged while many skilled, capable and motivated individuals with less experience will get missed.

How can assessments be used to develop your workforce, increase retention and provide career pathways for incumbent workers?

Assessments by design are meant to provide insight into the strengths and weaknesses of an individual. Many assessments will provide you a profile report of the individual that gets at that very thing. Some assessments take it a step further and offer a development report, collated information that helps you understand how to strengthen certain areas whether it is through mentorship, formal learning, or self-directed activities that an employee can pursue on their own accord. And then there is the concept of progress monitoring, the notion of assessing at short intervals to see and celebrate the progress one is making with respect to their development goals. While assessments are often used in the early stages of a relationship with an employee, by continuing to use them as part of your talent management strategy you are showing your employees that you are invested in understanding their individual needs with more precision, accuracy, objectivity and you are invested in their long term success and actively preparing a workforce of the future. Active employee development is absolutely necessary in order for a company to be successful and sought after!

One area of assessment that has become increasingly important to organizations who think about the future, is Critical Thinking, a higher level cognitive skill deemed to be extremely important and predictive of academic and/or leadership success. Organizations who think about building a succession plan of future leaders have found that by measuring Critical Thinking in a proactive way, they can then, through early identification have a pipeline of individuals that are naturally skilled in this area whom they can develop further and consider for future high stakes roles.

The same can be said for retooling or reskilling workers, assessments used in conjunction with a thorough job analysis (including jobs of the future) can create the path to redeploying our workers as demands on our organizations change. It is my belief that down the road, the intel you can gain from assessments will be not just be in the hands of the employer; I see the future as one where employees and individuals have access to this data so that they can proactively show their capabilities, their strengths, their motivations, interests; a time where they can have more ownership in order to make better informed and more personal academic choices, career selections, and customized learning plans. The better we get at understanding who we are; we will automatically get better at what we do and why we do it.