What is Unconscious Bias in the Workplace and How to Tackle it?

One of the worst things about unconscious bias is that it dominates who can speak, be heard and lead the team, not on performance alone. Unconscious bias leads to ill-meant discrimination and bullying against people who do not fit the ‘ideal employee’ description, leading to sheer unfairness.

Though one must always guard against unconscious bias in the workplace, some HR teams are still struggling with handling a diverse workforce. Apart from it being an ethical necessity, research has proved that organisations with ethnic, religious, racial and cultural diversity achieve higher profits than their competitors.

Human beings are critical and analytical beings and like to observe everything that is around them. We observe, scrutinise and form opinions on something as per our background, personal experiences and mindset. More often than not, such opinions can result in an unconscious bias towards someone, which leads to unfair decisions, bitter feelings and conflict in the workplace.

One might ask, what is unconscious bias and how can one recognise it? It can seep through the first interview, interview questions, job descriptions and performance management. One of the worst things about unconscious bias is that it dominates who can speak, be heard and lead the team, not on performance alone. Unconscious bias leads to ill-meant discrimination and bullying against people who do not fit the ‘ideal employee’ description, leading to sheer unfairness.

All of this can affect the company culture as a whole, affecting employee retention and turnover. Nobody wants that, neither you as an employer, nor the employees.

Not all bias has to be mean-spirited for even the best of us often don’t know what is unconscious bias when we make important decisions. In this read, we would be talking more about what is unconscious bias, types of unconscious bias, the effects of unconscious bias in idea generation and performance management, and how to tackle it.

What is unconscious bias?

Talent acquisition goes beyond human differences, so your company could be losing out on a potential employee if they do not meet rigid criteria. As a result, candidates of diverse backgrounds move on to join your competitors. Have you noticed candidates of a particular ethnicity, racial or religious background being under-represented in college placements, scheduled interviews in the office or walk-in job interviews? If yes, maybe it is time to open up the horizons to curb unconscious bias and boost talent acquisition.

Examples of unconscious bias in the workplace

Sometimes, unconscious bias could be ingrained into a particular job description as well. For example, a candidate might not apply or accept a job offer as it indicates potential barriers that can affect their career or personal goals. For example, women and people of certain backgrounds not being given a chance to be considered for an open position due to preconceived stereotypes.

Not just cultural differences, people with physical limitations face discrimination issues as well. They may be unable to attend corporate events or work in certain locations, but their work is as valuable as anybody else. They must be encouraged to participate in idea generation, performance management and leadership roles. For example, an accessible lavatory must be reserved for people with special needs while a nursing room must be available for new mothers. Similarly, they must be allowed to use such facilities when needed.

As a hiring manager, you or your recruitment partner might need to question your notion of what is unconscious bias. Though a prospective candidate is qualified enough, the recruiter can reject them due to their opinion of diverse talent. Though it generally happens in the earlier stages of an interview or interaction, it can happen at the later evaluation stages as well. Finally, a diverse candidate can be subjected to discrimination even if they are hired. They may face closer scrutiny than their colleagues, be excluded from certain projects or even be denied appraisals in the future.

Today’s candidates are smart, they check for inclusivity in workplaces before accepting a job offer. Job review websites and social media can filter companies with different mindsets towards diverse candidates, which can push away potential talent. Over time, candidates will stop applying to an organisation that doesn’t care about inclusion and acceptance in its culture.

Types of unconscious bias in the workplace

As mentioned, unconscious bias can be evident in several different ways. Here are eight kinds of bias that affect team interaction and decision-making at work:

  • Gender bias
    A major form of discrimination, gender bias is still common in several companies. For example, a male employee can be preferred for a physically demanding role while women can be preferred for more nurturing tasks. Certain job advertisements have been found that attract a particular gender over another. What’s worse is, men receive higher pay when women in the same role receive a lower salary.
  • Attribution bias
    As we climb up the organisation, we tend to credit success to our performance and refuse to accept our failures. However, we often attribute the good work of others as luck and their failures to their faults. Such misattribution can affect one’s chances of performance-related appraisals in the future.
  • Confirmation basis
    We often look up to support when we form an opinion of a candidate during recruitment and appraisals. Though first impressions are important, one should base their decisions on factual data.
  • Conformity bias
    Instead of using our independent judgement, we are often swayed by others’ viewpoints. Diverse teams bring rich experiences with them, which contributes greatly to the knowledge factor. Relieving your team of unconscious bias helps them become well-informed, creative and productive – all of which help in idea generation. Without stepping into what is unconscious bias, the team can agree to disagree on each other’s opinions albeit in a respectful manner.
  • Affinity bias
    Sometimes, we relate to the physical, background and personal details of a particular person. The problem arises when we refuse to accept qualified candidates from other circumstances as we believe that our experiences and goals wouldn’t match along the way.
  • Beauty bias
    Quite similar to affinity bias, beauty bias refers to choosing conventionally attractive people over others. Such a decision does not always translate to capability, performance and efficiency. This bias can affect performance management greatly.
  • Halo bias
    Though perfectly normal, we tend to emphasise on a person’s achievements and let that cover up their faults. We end up hiring the wrong person for a position because of the good work he or she has done, which can end up being a bad hire for the company. This happens when we glorify a candidate’s past record without really trying to understand if that is who the company needs.
  • Contrast bias
    We end up comparing team members against one another instead of evaluating their merits and demerits for a task. It doesn’t just affect your objectivity as a leader but induces unhealthy competition among each other.

How can we remove unconscious bias in the workplace?

Having understood the different types of unconscious bias, it is up to as leaders to resolve. Although it is difficult to eradicate bias, we can take the following steps to ensure an inclusive workplace:

  • Removing bias is a decision
    Bias stems up from a dislike pertaining towards certain communities, religions or ethnicities. Be self-aware and accept that you need some help in maintaining an all-embracing mindset.
  • Build a community
    The best way to eliminate bias is to get to know each other beyond a professional level. Include people of diverse backgrounds to appreciate different cultures and understand your team members better.
  • Address ongoing bias
    Hold regular unconscious bias coaching sessions to help your colleagues understand and include each other, instead of making it a one-day policy.
  • Ensure gender-neutral job advertisements
    Check for gender-specific language that may discourage either men or women only applying for an open position.
  • Adopt blind recruitment
    Remove a candidate’s details like name, age, ethnicity and other personal details from the CV. This promotes a more objective assessment of their skills, experience and suitability for the position. You can use artificial intelligence to evaluate a candidate’s interest in the job too.
  • Slow down
    HR teams and the management need time to make a proper hiring decision by examining all the relevant factors. It could be a lack of time or the hurry to fill up the position that can push us to make quick and unbiased decisions, which may harm the company’s ethics and values.

Even the best of us can suffer from or participate in unconscious bias in the workplace, but we must combat it in its initial stages to incorporate a community-like feeling. Now that we live in a cosmopolitan society, we must educate ourselves on what is unconscious bias and how we can rise above our differences to ensure a global society.

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