The Big Idea

If an organization wants to attract new business and promote revenue growth, whom should it promote? These decisions are pivotal to the success of a company but are prone to implicit bias.

Sometimes it makes sense to choose a candidate who fits in well. However, if the goal is to challenge the status quo, an organization will need diverse teams — and hiring managers trained to detect blind spots that will foster promotions that get them “more of the same” rather than the kind of diversity it needs to promote change.

The Scenario

Managers in marketing and sales at a medical devices company had convened to choose a new manager capable of attracting new business and promoting overall revenue growth. They had narrowed down the choice to two well-qualified internal candidates with equally strong performance metrics.

The choice was going to be hard. Mita Anand was a broad thinker, outgoing and willing to speak her mind. John Merriweather would be an easy fit with the rest of the team and had a good reputation throughout the company.

The conversation was going in circles until a manager spoke up. “At the party last night, Mita did that wild group karaoke on stage. I just don’t think it’s appropriate for a manager in our industry, let alone a mother, to behave like that.”

Others nodded in agreement: Anand’s behavior was noteworthy in their more reserved culture. No one pushed back on the statement about her status as a mother.

The Resolution

After the meeting ended, the hiring manager, Alan Smith, stayed behind to talk about the choice a bit longer with his boss, Maria Gomez, who, like Smith, had remained a silent observer during the discussion.

“I will be perfectly honest with you,” said Smith: “I think Mita is very qualified, but I worry she won’t be a good fit for our team. I think she is too much of a wild card, and I don’t know that we will all be able to get along well.”

Gomez responded, “I’m going to leave this decision to you, ultimately, but I want you to be aware as a hiring manager that you have to be conscious of any biases you’re bringing to the situation right now — we all have them.”

Gomez continued, “It sounds to me as though concerns about fit might be less about her abilities as a manager than about her identity and social behavior. I want to suggest to you that, as a leader, it’s important for you to be aware of these kind of things as you go forward.”

Ultimately, Smith decided to hire Anand. Her different perspective, willingness to take risks and outgoing nature proved to be exactly what the team needed to grow and attract new business. She wasn’t afraid to challenge the prevailing logic and culture of the team. In fact, by not “fitting,” she was an ideal agent for change.

The Lesson

As a female minority, Gomez often faced issues of implicit bias and was attuned to comments suggesting it. For example, had Anand been a man, it was much less likely, in Gomez’s experience, that anyone would have said his behavior at the party had been inappropriate “for a father.”

Yet Gomez knew she could not speak up every time or she would be labeled the “girl who cried wolf,” and thus have less influence, even if she was right. She also wanted her staff to be empowered to make decisions, rather than intervening every time she disagreed.

In this case, Gomez was willing to broach the sensitive topic and risk alienating her direct report because she felt that hiring and promotions were crucial decisions that would define the company for decades — making this an essential moment in which to avoid the ill effects of implicit bias.

Meanwhile, Gomez was mindful that conversations about candidates’ “fit” were happening throughout the company. Without recognizing it, people were using a term understood to be positive — the firm was proud of its culture and values — to unintentionally exclude people. Gomez therefore approached the president of her group to discuss training programs for managers to help them identify and overcome implicit biases.

The preceding is based on the case Whom Should We Promote? (Darden Business Publishing) by Darden Professor Jim Detert and Case Writer Christina Black. Except for the disguised identities of people and places, the case presents a real situation as it actually happened.

Learn more about making important personnel decisions in the Darden Business Publishing case
About the Expert

James R. Detert

John L. Colley Professor of Business Administration

An expert on leadership and ethics, Detert’s research focuses on workplace courage, why people do or don’t speak up, and ethical decision-making and behavior. His research and consulting have been conducted across a variety of global high-technology and service-oriented industries, in addition to public sector institutions, including K–12 education.

Detert has received awards for his teaching in MBA and Executive MBA programs, as well as academic best paper awards for his work, which appears in many online and print media outlets. Prior to coming to Darden, he taught at the Johnson School of Management at Cornell University.

BBA, University of Wisconsin; MBA, University of Minnesota; M.A., Ph.D., Harvard University