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Combating Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

diverse group of employees talking

Whether we realize it or not, we all have biases about the people we interact with each day. This includes individuals in our professional lives, and unconscious bias can impact the way we problem-solve and the way we interact with coworkers. Such biases may come about as a result of our background, culture, personal life experiences, and even the media we consume. When we bring unconscious bias into the workplace, it can negatively impact employees and their ability to thrive and succeed in their careers. These biases can also lead to certain groups being treated less favorably or discriminated against.

Given that practices of unconscious bias can be found in recruitment, training, and many other areas in the workplace, it's in your best interest to familiarize yourself with core principles of work bias that we'll cover in this article, including:

What is Unconscious Bias?

Unconscious or implicit bias refers to the associations people may attribute to others' characteristics, qualities, and social categories, such as:

  • Gender
  • Race
  • Age
  • National origin or ethnicity
  • Sexual orientation
  • Religion
  • Physical characteristics such as height or weight
  • Socioeconomic status
  • Education level

The biases we have can be so deeply ingrained in us that we may be unaware of their effects on our thinking or interactions with others.

How Can Unconscious Bias Affect the Workplace?

Unconscious bias can impact any workplace. There may be bias in the treatment of    colleagues, as well as bias in a manager’s treatment of subordinates. Managers' biases can be particularly problematic, as they could create arbitrary advantages for some and unfair treatment for others.

Consequences of unconscious bias in the workplace may include:

  • Strained interpersonal relationships
  • Losing the chance to hear diverse perspectives, opinions, and insights
  • Lack of organizational diversity, particularly at leadership levels
  • Inability of some employees to advance upward in an organization through no fault of their own and for reasons unrelated to their work performance
  • Low morale and productivity as well as high turnover from staff who may be on the receiving end of negative bias
  • The business may be vulnerable to discrimination complaints and lawsuits

Many companies have taken steps to implement measures to reduce unconscious bias when hiring. But just as importantly, business leaders should make concerted efforts to avoid exhibiting unconscious bias at any point.

Examples of Unconscious Bias

Unconscious biases can hinder decision-making, sever team dynamics, and inhibit company diversity. What are examples of unconscious bias in the workplace? Unconscious bias may take the form of one of the following common scenarios.

The Halo Effect and Horns Effect

‍The halo effect is one of the most common forms of unconscious bias. It occurs when someone's overall performance or character is generalized based on just one trait or event. If it's a positive trait, it's called the halo effect, while a negative trait is called the horns effect.

Managers need to take care not to generalize an employee's performance based on one specific characteristic. Just because someone might have excelled on one project last year doesn't necessarily mean that person still is contributing as effectively. Alternatively, just because someone struggled once doesn't mean they're incapable of improving their performance in the future.

An example of the halo effect is a hiring manager noting that a candidate graduated from the same Ivy League school they did and assuming they will excel at their job. This halo is based on the hiring manager's perception of a school, but the college that someone attended doesn't necessarily correlate to their ability to excel in a job.

Gender Bias

Gender bias is the tendency to unconsciously associate certain stereotypes with different genders. Gender bias today is commonly labeled as "sexism" and often describes the prejudice against women solely on the basis of their sex.

In hiring and recruiting, an example of gender bias is a hiring panel favoring a male candidate over a female candidate, even though they have similar skills and job experience. At the office, an example of this may be an assertive woman leading a project being perceived as "aggressive," while a man with the same responsibilities and attributes is described as "confident."

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias refers to the tendency to seek out and use information that validates one's already held views and expectations. It affects our ability to think critically and objectively, which can lead to skewed interpretations and overlooking information with opposing views. Once you make a decision or form an opinion about something, you tend to look for information that confirms your beliefs, while overlooking information that goes against them.

An example of confirmation bias is conducting research for a work project, but only asking questions that will deliver answers that support your hypothesis. The objective results of that research could set the stage for a successful product or project, but confirmation bias essentially skews the data you collect.

Ways to Combat Unconscious Bias

While it may be impossible to completely eliminate unconscious bias, there are steps you can take to reduce its prevalence in the workplace and impact on processes. Follow these best practices when strategizing how to overcome unconscious bias in your workplace.

Educate the Workplace about Unconscious Bias

The first step of limiting the impact unconscious bias can have on your organization is making sure everyone is aware that it exists. Education and communication surrounding biases at work are important in this step. Training may be effective, as it can help educate all staff members about what unconscious bias is, how it manifests in the workplace, and ways to combat it. It also offers a safe space for employees to recognize that everyone possesses implicit biases and can encourage them to identify their own misconceptions about others without judgement.

Assess Biases in the Workplace

Consider leveraging assessments such as Harvard's Implicit Association Test to determine which of an individual's perceptions are most likely to be governed by unconscious bias. This and other tools can help you uncover the most common places where implicit bias can show up, such as your hiring process, employee development initiatives, and pay scales.

Set Diversity Goals

Having a diverse staff can reap benefits for a business. Just a few of the positive impacts of having a diverse workforce may include:

  • Creates a positive working environment
  • Expands your talent pool
  • Increases innovation with the inclusion of new perspectives
  • Improves performance
  • Increases employee engagement
  • Reduces turnover
  • Expands your access to global markets
  • Improves the business' reputation

With this in mind, you may set a goal to cultivate a more diverse workforce. In such a case, look to compare candidates based on skill and merit only. This may take the form of blind screenings of applications, but it also helps to ensure there's diversity among the hiring team itself. Otherwise, you may continue hiring the same types of workers, even if you have the best intentions.

You may also want to apply the same processes and ask the same questions during each job interview. This method allows you to gather information in a uniform manner and helps minimize unconscious bias during the hiring process.

Outside of hiring and recruiting, consider implementing a standard performance review process that evaluates employees based on their progress toward meeting concrete goals, which can help minimize any potential for unconscious bias.

Once you're aware of unconscious bias in the workplace, you can take steps to mitigate its effects. Eliminating it altogether may not be feasible, but you can work to limit the negative impacts of bias in the workplace. Plus, there's much to gain by working toward becoming a bias-free organization. Consider working with an experienced HR professional who can help you implement and uphold policies for cultivating a bias-free workplace that supports all of its employees.

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* This content is for educational purposes only, is not intended to provide specific legal advice, and should not be used as a substitute for the legal advice of a qualified attorney or other professional. The information may not reflect the most current legal developments, may be changed without notice and is not guaranteed to be complete, correct, or up-to-date.

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