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Homelessness in America: Implicit Biases in the Hiring Process

Hiring Bias in the Workplace

In recent years, organizations across the U.S. have devoted time and resources toward improving the efficiency of their internal HR policies. Those systematic updates have succeeded in reducing the prevalence of explicit biases towards race, gender, and sexuality that once plagued the corporate world. However, in spite of its benefits , those updates have failed to adequately address implicit biases in the workplace. This issue stems, in part, from the subjective nature of implicit biases, which are typically subconscious judgements or characterizations about individuals. In fact, individuals who act on an implicit bias may be entirely unaware of its influence.

Though it remains an issue across all industries, implicit bias is particularly problematic in staffing and recruiting. Thousands of hiring (and firing) decisions are made everyday between recruitment agencies and hiring managers, and many of these decisions are made with biased assumptions about candidates. While laws and regulations make it easier to reduce explicit biases in staffing decisions, it is far more difficult to identify and prevent implicit biases, partially because new anti-discriminatory policies, legislature, and messaging strategies do not address implicit biases directly. Hiring decisions based on these subconscious prejudices happen daily and job applicants bear the brunt of these unfair outcomes.

“If implicit biases are subconscious, what can be done to prevent them from affecting the hiring process?”

A staffing team can establish an equitable staffing approach by recognizing existing implicit biases and taking action to ensure they do not take hold on their company. The University of California, San Francisco has conducted extensive research on combating implicit biases and provides strategies that one can use to identify and eliminate them.

USPRO is a woman-owned staffing services firm that aims to eliminate all forms of bias throughout the hiring process. As an active member of the greater Boston community, USPRO hopes to educate the public about discrimination that is prevalent in the staffing industry. To achieve this goal, USPRO recently partnered with Breaktime — a Boston-based non-profit social enterprise that aims to end young adult homelessness. Through purposeful employment, Breaktime empowers young adults experiencing homelessness to build stability in their lives while building resilience in their community. As a transitional employer specifically tailored to young adults experiencing homelessness, they have seen firsthand how stereotypes, stigmas, and biases act as barriers to employment for their program participants. Utilizing USPRO’s vast network of industry contacts, this partnership aims to amplify Breaktime’s messaging throughout the staffing industry and across the nation. USPRO believes there is much to be learned from the non-profit sector, and Breaktime is equipped with the resources and drive to educate us all.

In spearheading a youth-to-youth model, Breaktime regularly encounters bias against individuals, especially young adults, who have experienced homelessness. Stigma surrounding homelessness fuels bias — both implicit and explicit — that leads to discrimination based on housing status in the staffing industry. Many negative associations including drug addiction, criminal activity, and laziness have long been attached to the term “homeless.” We all have a responsibility to educate ourselves on the social conditions that produce homelessness to counter harmful stereotypes that inaccurately portray the experiences of youth facing housing instability.

The State of Homelessness Regarding Race and Sexuality

Homelessness disproportionately impacts young adults, especially young adults of color. Each year, one in 10 young adults (ages 18-25) experiences some form of homelessness. This rampant homelessness in the U.S. is rooted in longstanding discrimination and inequality. The majority of the 10% of young adults experiencing homelessness are of minority status: 78% of young adults experiencing homelessness are Black and 89% are young adults of color. These figures underscore the necessity of achieving racial equity if we are to end young adult homelessness.

Additionally, among young adults experiencing homelessness, 40% identify as LGBTQ+. Individuals who identify as LGBTQ+ are 120% more likely to experience homelessness than non-LGBTQ youth. Their encounter with systemic inequities throughout childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood contribute to these disproportionate levels of homelessness. Research has revealed that many LGBTQ+ young adults experience homelessness due to family conflict and are unable to stay in the homes of their parents, relatives, or foster or group homes. With little to no control over their domestic situations, many young LGBTQ+ people in the U.S. are forced to endure years of housing instability.

Stable employment remains the most critical factor to achieving stable housing, but it also the most common barrier people experiencing homelessness face. Breaktime alumna, KJ expressed,

“The hardest part of being homeless is the stereotype and standard that is set for being homeless. I can’t tell a job that I’m homeless because that won’t look good for hiring.”

Recent studies report that unemployment rates among young adults experiencing homeless are up to 75%, with three quarters of these young people actively seeking work but unable to obtain it. For some young people, this experience with employment uncertainty can lead to long-term chronic housing instability, health issues, and persistent unemployment.

Much of the difficulty in obtaining stable employment ties directly into the aforementioned implicit biases against people experiencing homelessness. Even if candidates elect not to discuss their experience with homelessness during the hiring process, those experiences will quickly become apparent if candidates are required to fill out a background check or apply for a security clearance as a condition of employment. A survey conducted by the National Coalition for Homelessness found that 70.4% of individuals experiencing homelessness “felt that they have been discriminated against because of their housing status.” When an employer inquires about an applicant’s living conditions or housing history, it opens the door to immediate discrimination and implicit bias and, thus, becomes an employment barrier for someone experiencing homelessness. We encourage all employers to “Ban the Address” from applications and instead wait to ask for that information after an offer of employment is extended.

Empathy: Ending Barriers to Employment for People Experiencing Homelessness

The only way to remove implicit bias from the hearts and minds of hiring personnel is to provide hiring managers with effective methods to combat implicit bias, starting with the essential practice of empathy. Matt Tice, the Clinical Director of Pathways to Housing, states, “[Practicing empathy] has to do with treating people like people, not treating them like ‘This is a homeless person’…Recognize that this is a person dealing with a [negative] situation.” Tice suggests how hiring personnel view ‘homeless people’ is a propagator of implicit bias, and Breaktime has found the same to be true when speaking with their candidates about acknowledging experiences with homelessness during the interview process. In viewing someone as a “homeless person,” rather than someone experiencing the effects of homelessness, hiring personnel conflate the stigma around homelessness with the character of the individuals they evaluate. Upon modifying their language from ‘homeless person’ to ‘person experiencing homelessness,’ hiring personnel are able to separate candidates from their situation. Alicia Albl of Lutherwood Housing explains that this way of speaking “puts the person first and [removes] homelessness as a stigmatized identity.”

Curbing implicit biases around homelessness within the hiring process requires an intentional effort to train hiring managers in empathic practices. Experiential simulation, also known as Point-of-View simulation, provides one training method: In this exercise, individuals imagine themselves seeking employment while experiencing homelessness to better understand the experiences of job applicants who have grappled with housing insecurity. Further, work-sponsored opportunities to volunteer at homeless shelters and food pantries provide another approach to fostering empathy among managers by bringing them in direct contact with people experiencing homelessness.

Practicing empathy allows hiring managers to feel as though they have walked in the shoes of a person experiencing homelessness, enabling them to try to understand the struggles of experiencing homelessness while confronting the inaccuracy of their implicit biases. Hiring managers practicing empathy recognize that homelessness is not the offshoot of laziness or drug addiction, but is instead produced by discrimination and systemic inequities. In putting a stop to implicit bias, empathy provides young adults experiencing homelessness a fair chance of obtaining employment.

Our Commitment

Together, Breaktime and USPRO aim to ensure that young adults experiencing homelessness have a fair chance of obtaining employment and are not discriminated against based on their housing status. Since people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community are more likely to experience homelessness, our goals also aim to fight discrimination affecting these marginalized communities. We encourage you to share this piece with employers and hiring managers, because we must all work together to eliminate the barriers people experiencing homelessness face during the hiring process.

This article was written by Sam Goodman (Breaktime Director of Communications) and Cameron Flory (USPRO Social Media, Sales, and Marketing Administrator).

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