‘To err is human; to forgive is divine’ said Alexander Pope. But when this unnoticed and unidentified ‘error’ costs someone their job, or gets someone a bad performance review, or worse results in someone being laid off, probably forgiveness doesn’t come as easily. In this unstable and judgemental world, the often elusive objectivity forms the core of any role and responsibility every job, but in a few professions this assumed importance is even more critical. In the long list of such professions, which include the media, medicine, law or public policy, one often omits the role of HR. But let us take a step back and identify why maintaining objectivity in HR critical, how is it ensured and what are the potential pitfalls are where objectivity in this domain can be compromised.
What is objectivity in HR?
Objectivity in HR can be understood as using fair, balanced and just criteria and parameters for making decisions concerning the employees of the organisation or addressing organisational problems. In other words, this means that decisions are made keeping in mind hard facts, and not one personal relationship or judgements of one of more people. It also means removing biases that can creep in due to personal animosity, cultural differences or any other abstract factor which cannot be measured, or proven. But since HR Executives are human, it is becomes difficult and impossible to remain completely objective, as it is in innately human to be influences by opinions and not facts. However, seemingly unimportant decisions which might not impact critical processes like hiring, appraisals, bonuses, promotions, lay-offs and redressal in a significant manner, will be detrimental to the performance of the organisation in the long run. This happens so, because the way HR goes about the above mentioned processes determines factors like attrition, retention, employee loyalty, organisational affinity, productivity, employee morale and satisfaction, which takes us back to objectivity. If the processes of HR are clear, ambiguous and transparent, it leaves little window for confusion, arbitrary and discrimination, and thus makes these decisions performance-based and removes other prejudices.
Where is objectivity likely to be compromised the most?
Sahana Chattopadhyay, who works in TCS as a Consultant, Social Media & Workplace Reimagination Practice, says there are various approaches to identify such areas and processes, but zeroes in on three such processes where objectivity could be under threat. She says, “During Recruitment and Hiring, factors like confirmation biases, assumptions, and stereotypes of the candidate, play a subconscious role which undermines objectivity. For example, an articulate speaker may be perceived as more competent or conventionally good looking people being rated as talented leading to discriminatory behaviour towards the non-conventional talent. I have seen many senior recruiters make the mistake of taking a CV at face value, especially if it’s sprinkled with names of elite institutions, and failing to probe deeper.” Furthermore, several reports and surveys have repeatedly identified hiring and talent acquisition to be most prone to discriminatory practices. Furthermore, Performance Evaluation is another territory that needs to be waded through carefully, as often long-lasting impressions; personal dynamics and assumptions make the process murkier. Sahana explains, “These biases can range from Recency Bias, where a recent performance is overrated or underrated at the cost of long term consideration, to Negativity Bias which ignores talented employees and often giving rise to mediocrity over meritocracy. More so, sometimes the employees don’t always “toe the line” as per their managers face the brunt of this bias.”
How to ensure objectivity in HR?
As easy as it may seem, ensuring objectivity requires consciously and constantly questioning assumptions, stereotypes and the ‘way things are’. In the hiring domain this means formulating a system that eliminates bias by clearly defining the job requirement, focusing on the experience and not on organisation, title or educational background, and ensuring a skills assessment during the interview and monitoring it closely. Furthermore, in case of a disagreement within employees or teams, HR needs to reach a decision based on facts, not opinions, and also foster a space wherein every aggrieved party is provided with a platform to voice it, and it is acted upon in fair manner for all employees. Chattopadhyay identifies another important and widely misused bias, “The Status Quo Bias and the ‘this is the way it’s done here’ mindset completely derail objectivity and are the biggest enemies of change. HR can lead the way for change in organizations or can act as gatekeepers of the old order. This one single choice has the power and potential to make or break organizations.” Objectivity in performance reviews would translate into judging an employee’s successes and failures in isolation from their skills, friendships, preferences, choices and background outside the ambit of the cubicle.
It is said that ‘Objectivity is a myth’, simply because humans are subject to form opinions and biases based on their fields of knowledge and experiences. However, by the virtue of the unique role that HR assumes in an organisation, it cannot afford to make decisions with bias. The next time you make a decision which is likely to affect the career of another individual, make sure you take a minute to identify the amount of objectivity and transparency you are bringing in the process and how can it be increased further, for the answers are fairly simple and looking at you in the face.