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March - 2008 - issue > Protocol@Work
"Respecting Privacy Reduces Bias at Work"
Sridhar Jayanthi
Friday, February 29, 2008
It is common practice to try to understand a person by knowing more about their personal background. It is not unusual in India for a stranger or a colleague to discuss your private information such as your place of origin, mother tongue, marital status or even caste. Almost always the intention is to gain quick understanding of the person, although in many ways it is prying into someone’s private life. While norms in the society are changing slowly regarding such issues of privacy, it is important for the corporate culture to change more rapidly. This is not a new topic, but I hope to shed some new light on the business impact of such “profiling”.

The definition of profiling in this context can be briefly summarized as the act of gathering representative information about a person and justifying current behavior or predicting future behavior. Such understanding is usually instinctive and statistical in nature; in other words, there is high probability that such prediction is correct if the person has met sufficient people of such profile and has a good sample set. It takes a very mature person to not allow such personal information from creating bias. Regardless of whether profiling is legal or accurate; it has an impact on the performance of an organization.

Take the case of hiring – if a manager in a job interview is able to either visually gather profiling information or even go to the extent of verbally asking for private information, he is doing so with an intention to make the selection process easier. Normal human behavior has a tendency to predict the person’s future behavior based on inherent statistical understanding of that person’s lineage or pedigree or family status. It may cause the manager to reject the candidate blindly or worse yet hire without a more logical justification beyond “feels right”. The company may end up rejecting a very good performer or hiring a poor performer based on “gut feeling”. Neither case is good for the business. The larger the company, unless this practice is actively discouraged, the larger the loss due to incorrect hiring.

As a note of caution to senior management in any company, I would suggest looking for signals of such profiling being used during recruitment or execution. If a team in a cosmopolitan city consists of a disproportionate number of people of one kind, or extra opportunities are given to people whose mother tongue is a certain language, or you see a large bias based on gender or marital status, it is highly probable that profiling has been used to make decisions. If questions are raised, you may hear reasons such as “they are the hard working kind” or “she may not work hard since she has children” or other justification around genetic or regional superiority. I have seen this happen in the US and in India. To my surprise often such discussions are taken very lightly. While bias based on educational background is natural given their selection process, it is best to set a hiring benchmark and use the interview process for quality. Good or bad talent could come from any institution. Even in that case, it is better to be open-minded. Again, regardless of accuracy of such predictions, the business is most benefited with the best-qualified people.

What can managers do to avoid these situations? The best action is a proactive one. Discourage questions that violate privacy during interviews. Questions that make the person reveal personal information such as age, region, marital status; number of children, mother tongue and religion should be banned from interviews by
company policy. Even after a person joins the company, these topics are best not discussed about a person with exceptions when the friendship surpasses professional relationship.

Diversity creates vibrancy and questions status quo. Diversity makes open-mindedness essential and thereby promotes out of box thinking. Diversity is required for finding innovative solutions to complex problems. This awareness is in the best interests of the company and is likely to yield dividends in form of politics-free
productive environment.

The author is Vice President of Engineering and Head of India Operations,
McAfee Engineering Centre, India. He can be reached at sridhar_jayanthi@McAfee.com

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