I had the opportunity to speak with Elke Frank, Head of HR Development at Deutsche Telekom, about whether unconscious bias can hurt careers – and whether algorithms are thus the better recruiters.
Ms. Frank, have you ever had any personal experience of unconscious bias?
Elke Frank: Yes, I have. It happened at a team offsite assignment during my time with Mercedes-AMG, a subsidiary of Daimler AG. The team consisted of five men and me, and on one occasion we were charged with whipping up a 3-course meal. During the initial preparation for that task, all the team members worked equally hard, but when we got to the actual cooking, the men started looking at me. I told them that while I am a good kitchen helper and a wine lover, I'm not much of a cook. Two of the men in the team then turned out to be great cooks …
That's a nice story, and it would of course make a great anecdote for a team event! But the underlying mechanism you're getting at can have major impacts on careers …
Elke Frank: This is about perceptions and biases, and the major impacts they can have are the reason why we offer training events to make people aware of them. We have been running such courses for years now. All of us carry a whole bag of stereotypes around with us, and we gain a great deal simply by becoming aware of them. What's more, such awareness enables us to counter bias.
Needless to say, awareness in this area is especially important for people who have personnel responsibility and who decide on promotions and evaluations.
And who decide whether such and such a person is even going to be hired. Are algorithms ultimately the better recruiters, because they are free of bias?
Elke Frank: I think that in this area, as in so many, a combination of artificial and human intelligence is the best answer. We now often use artificial intelligence for first-round screening purposes, because it enables us to evaluate an entire pool of people without applying any unconscious bias. But would it even be conceivable to hire someone without conducting a personal interview with him or her? I don't think that would work, because an algorithm is not going to be able to determine whether a person could fit within our company culture.
With that approach, don't you run the risk of applying the unconscious bias in the second round that you were able to eliminate in the first round? It is well known that we tend to choose people who are like us …
Elke Frank: There are ways in which we can protect ourselves against such bias. We work with certified suitability diagnosticians, for example, and we always have at least two interviewers present in job interviews. That ensures that we get more than one perspective and more than one set of impressions in each interview. We also have clear guidelines for our talent pools and our succession planning, including the requirement that every shortlist has to include at least one woman. Our recruiters work as consultants and talent scouts in the field. They collaborate closely with our specialist departments, and thus they understand a great deal about how our business works. All of these efforts have been paying off. We have received a number of awards for our non-discriminatory personnel-selection procedures. For example, we have twice received the HR Excellence Award and the Förderpreis Psychologie (psychology advancement award) of the German Psychological Society (DGP).
Do you like the idea of a women's quota, Ms. Frank?
Elke Frank: In any case, I certainly like what it does. I would be delighted if we could get the same results without quotas. But that just doesn't seem to be possible in Germany. So we should just be pragmatic and use quotas.
In seminars and training events, women often receive coaching about how they should come across, at the personal level, in their work. Do you think that women should try to be more like men in this regard?
Elke Frank: I think that men and women can learn a great deal from each other. It is still the case that women tend to be less aggressive than men in trying to land good jobs. They tend to ask themselves "Can I really do that?" more often. They also tend to hold back on negotiating for raises and promotions; in fact, they tend to demand less overall. Men, on the other hand, have fewer "emotional antennas" for moods and atmospheres in teams and during discussions. And then, when they don't catch emotional drifts, they wonder why things don't seem to be running smoothly.
Do you think people believe that women are less deserving of success than men are?
Elke Frank: No, because success commands respect, regardless of which gender the success is coming from.
What about you? Do you think you have any bias? Our brain works in amazing ways, and it can be a fascinating experience to become aware of and evaluate the internal associations that affect our behavior and our actions.
At Deutsche Telekom, we cultivate and uphold a culture of integrity – and of respect and tolerance for personal skills, capabilities and lifestyles. This orientation provides the basis for successful cooperation. All employees deserve to be respected and appreciated — regardless of their gender, nationality, ethnic background, religion and belief system, disability, age, sexual orientation and identity perception.