If you’ve ever served in the U.S. Army, the scene I’ll describe is going to be familiar to you. (If not, it will be interesting trivia.)
Imagine standing at attention, wearing your service uniform with all the ribbons, being careful not to smile, and having someone take a photo.
All the veterans out there are saying, right, the photo for your promotion file — a key part of the process of getting promoted to higher rank.
As the official human resources page for the U.S. Army explains:
Board members carefully screen each photograph for compliance with height and weight standards, proper wear of the uniform and military bearing. DA photos add a human aspect to the selection process, and without a photograph the quality of any personnel file is greatly diminished.
Only, it turns out that even if it was totally unconscious, promotion boards might have been doing something else: systematically discriminating against soldiers on the basis of their race or gender.
Starting in October 2018, the Army studied this by conducting two identical promotion boards: one which ran as they normally did, and one in which officer photos weren’t included in the promotion packets.
Without the photos, they found:
- Members of promotion boards ranked soldiers more uniformly when they didn’t have the photos;
- Promotion decisions took less time; and
- Women and minorities were promoted at a higher rate.
“It’s just that people, even if they don’t think about it, they tend to want to be around people that look and think and act like them,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville said, according to Military.com. “When you get to a higher level, you start to realize you want diversity because you want different perspectives.”
So, the Army announced that starting in August, the promotion board photo will be a thing of the past:
“Effective 1 August 2020, the requirement for the … photo is suspended. Data that identifies a Soldier’s race, ethnicity, and gender … will be redacted. These changes will ensure that selection boards are as fair and impartial as possible.”
(Some earlier reporting said this was just for officer boards, but the Army memo announcing the change says it’s for all ranks.)
“The photo is introducing more noise than signal about the officer’s talent,” Col. Carl Wojtaszek of the Army Office of Economic and Manpower Analysis told Military Times.
Now, it probably sounds more than a little bit odd to people outside of the military that the Army was still doing this.
Most large private companies would be at pains to avoid even the appearance of the possibilty that bias could be sneaking into their hiring and promotion processes.
It’s not a small issue either — since the army has close to 1.3 million soldiers and civilian employees, if you count the National Guard and reserves. Walmart is bigger — about 1.5 million U.S. employees — but beyond that it’s hard to imagine a bigger employer.
I’m going to assume your business doesn’t use photos or formal promotion boards.
But are there other things that might be creeping into your processes, and unconsciously leading you or others to reveal biases?
Are there decisions you made long ago that lead you to discount people — even without meaning to — who could be contributing greatly to your team?
Now seems like a pretty opportune time to ask the question.
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