Overcoming Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

Close your eyes and imagine the following scenario in your head: You’re listening to a news report regarding a high-speed chase on your local freeway. Who do you picture as the culprit of these offenses? Do you immediately assume they are a man or a woman? What is their race or ethnicity? What about the police officer who caught them?

If you pictured a specific gender, race, or socioeconomic background, you just applied unconscious bias. Whether we like to believe it or not, we all suffer from some scale of this cognitive process. In a time where companies are looking to diversify their workplace (and employees are demanding it), a manager or employer’s unconscious bias can become a large liability.

What is an unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias is defined as a prejudice, quick, or unsupported judgement in favor or against one thing, person, or group as compared to another, in a manner that is usually considered unethical. As a result, certain people or groups can unfairly benefit or be penalized. From early childhood, our brains are hardwired to make unconscious decisions, as we are often forced to act and think quickly in a complex world. This means our unconscious thoughts and actions have a direct link.

How can it affect your workplace?

Understanding the definition of unconscious bias can help us better understand how these judgements can negatively impact a workplace, and also make us more self-aware so that we can combat our biases with thoughtful behavior.

Interviewing: If your company mainly uses word of mouth or referrals to find new talent, this can limit the diversity of your candidate field. This is because employees naturally tend to provide recommendations to friends and peers who look and act like them. If your workforce already lacks diversity, this may amplify the problem. Further, if your management has not received proper training on interviewing best practices, their unconscious bias regarding a candidate’s name, credentials, education, and activities may affect their hiring decisions. For example, African-American candidates have reported that they have removed portions of their resumes to remove evidence of their race including their full name to make them appear “whiter”.

Progressive Discipline/Performance Review: Objectivity is the foundation of a credible review process. Psychologists have found that 61% of an employee’s rating is based on the judgement of the rater, rather than the ratee’s performance. When utilizing judgement compared to real data and the results of the employee being reviewed, favoritism and unfair treatment become commonplace. This unconscious bias can lead to employees feeling disengaged and under appreciated.

Promotions: Many times, unconscious bias can be disguised as common sense. Some examples include the notion that older employees are not great with computers, or certain job criteria would be performed at a more efficient rate by a man compared to a woman. However, this way of thinking  could eliminate qualified and talented employees from receiving the chance to perform at a higher level.

There are additional areas that can be impacted using unconscious bias in the workplace, however the above areas will present the highest level of liability to your company, as bias can be perceived as discrimination. When these judgements go unchecked, the culture of your organization will suffer, leading to dissatisfaction with management, toxic work relationships, and an increase in turnover.  

Ways to Combat Unconscious Bias

The first step in changing your culture and understanding your liability to unconscious bias is to diagnose the current state of the workplace. Ensure your policies and procedures foster an inclusive work environment. Also, seek out ways to diversify your workforce at all levels. This isn’t an easy task, and often you will need to create a business case to persuade senior management to set aside budget for this cause. Note: These initiatives can only be successful when there is buy in from senior management.

Recruit from diverse sources: Look for candidates outside your normal recruitment process. Your company can introduce “name blind” and “gender blind” recruiting policies by removing certain fields on candidate applications to prevent initial spot judgement. You should also ensure your application tool looks for objective factors.

Provide active & engaging training: Talking at managers and employees with a PowerPoint presentation is not going to move the needle in understanding our own biases and how they affect the workplace. In fact, companies that only utilized traditional training saw a decrease in diversity, according to the Harvard Business Review. We recommend creating trainings that are interactive and provide real life examples. Allowing a manager to see biases unfold via an interactive training can help them develop a habit of becoming aware of their own biases.

Focus on Job Competencies: Ensure managers are well versed in the job competencies associated with each position they oversee. These job-specific areas such as knowledge, skills, and abilities needed to be successful in a position should be the point of focus when interviewing, hiring, and promoting individuals in your organization.

Mentorship Programs: Look outside ordinary training programs to find ways to connect with employees. The National Human Services Assembly states that implementing mentoring programs promotes diversity by giving every employee a chance to grow professionally. This benefits both manager and employee, as mentoring encourages managers to interact with employees they may have biases against. Creating a mentoring program allows employers to invest in employees’ success.

In order to foster a culture of diversity and remain legally compliant, ensure you deploy all these tools throughout the entire organization from your line level employees to your corporate team. Raising awareness of unconscious bias in a top-down approach provides employees the opportunity to review their own biases and work on ways to eliminate these biases in a more open and honest manner. If you have any questions or want to discuss this topic further, please reach out to your HR Consultant.