By Ellen McGirt
Updated: April 3, 2018 3:32 PM ET

Quick. Picture a genius. Who did you see in your mind’s eye?

Some 90% of people will see Albert Einstein, says Daniel Chait, the CEO of Greenhouse, a firm that makes hiring software. “We’re used to thinking of geniuses as white men,” he said, referring to the hundreds of years of men-as-geniuses branding in Albert’s favor. Even if you’re super-woke and hustle to conjure up an image of Katherine Jonson or Isamu Akasaki, Einstein’s face will probably still pop into your brain first.

It was the opening salvo of his keynote at the Greenhouse Open conference today and a reminder that if we want to minimize bias in our lives, we’ll have to interrupt the shortcuts that our brains take a million times a day based on the patterns we’re used to and the experiences we’ve had. “It’s necessary to take some of them to get through our day,” he said. But unexamined, “they can lead you badly astray.”

Chait was teeing up some upcoming changes to their software, designed to include diversity data and inclusion prompts that talent managers can use to better identify the bias baked into their systems. (I haven’t demo’d it, nor have I done any reporting on it, so this is not an endorsement.)

What got my attention was the partner they used to develop this version of their software: Joelle Emerson, the founder and CEO of Paradigm, an inclusion consultancy. Emerson was an indispensable resource on Fortune’s recent story on grit, which explored how companies are finding ways to look past traditional markers of success to find potential in people who are overlooked by existing talent screens.

“We use quantitative analysis to figure out what are the specific barriers candidates are facing,” Emerson told Fortune. “Companies desperately need to know what’s happening at every stage of their hiring funnel so they can think about the investments they want to make.”

While I’ll leave the software review to a later column, Emerson shared an idea that I plan to put into place immediately to help me re-train my own brain: The checklist.

Emerson found inspiration from The Checklist Manifesto, a remarkable book by Dr. Atul Gawande, who studied how simple checklists for routine tasks yielded extraordinary results.

The most memorable examples are people in the aviation industry, who use checklists for everything from clearing planes for takeoff, to managing sudden crises like the one that helped Capt. Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger successfully land a hobbled plane on the Hudson River in 2009. Apply the same discipline to surgical procedures and suddenly surgical teams were seeing reductions in subsequent infections and death. And we’re not talking brain surgery. One of the prompts on the checklist: Did you remember to wash your hands?

“What checklists do is help you break down tasks into routine steps, then make them systematic and add structure,” says Emerson. We’re human. People forget what they’re supposed to do, become frazzled, or simply want to stand out from their peers with their own way of doing things. But what they miss when they improvise can be problematic.

“Now add this to the world of hiring,” she says. Inclusion prompts – like making note of where specific groups are falling out of the interview process, or reminding interviewers to ask about specific achievements, not just credentials – helps you track how people are faring as they seek jobs and promotions at your firm. “Since there is no holistic solution at every stage of the hiring process, if you don’t have data, you don’t know what’s working or not.”

And like hand-washing, it’s the little things that matter. Last year, I began asking subjects I didn’t already know for their preferred pronouns. It was the latest addition to my own pre-interview “checklist,” which until today, was just in my head. In countless cases, the question itself yielded richer conversations and in one case, saved me from embarrassment and my subject from being offended in public.

After today, I’ll be writing my checklist down. I think it will help me feel more confident in my conversations and make sure I don’t forget to tell someone something vital – like, hey, okay if I record this?

But it should also help me make sure I don’t inadvertently make a part of someone’s identity disappear. It might not be a Nobel Prize-worthy innovation, but I’m sure Einstein would approve.


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