Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

Unbeknownst to us all, we are all guilty of being biased; it is in our biology. Psychologists explain that our unconscious biases are simply our ‘people preferences’ and we naturally favour those who look like us, sound like us and are interested in the same things.

We make snap judgments and rely on our gut instinct on a daily basis – we call it “intuition” – and employers are just as guilty of it in the workplace. This is not an effective process, nor is it logical, modern or sometimes even legal. Biased views can refer to a number of categories; gender, age, race, sexuality, weight, social class, country of origin, political views and many more.

Psychologists have highlighted three main types of bias that are apparent in the workforce: affinity bias (where we ignore negative traits of people we like and focus on the faults of those we don’t), social comparison bias (where we favour those we consider to be in ‘our group’) and confirmatory bias (where we seek for facts that will confirm our pre-existing perceptions).

Many say unconscious bias is the most critical issue to be addressed if those involved in the recruitment process are to work towards closing these gaps (gender, race, etc). Whether our observations stem from our upbringing or social environment, such prejudices affect our perceptions of competence which can lead to candidates suffering and organisations being deprived of great hires. Companies benefit from having a diverse work force for a multitude of reasons, including having an increased creative capability and employees who are more reflective of the wider population. Quite simply, our neurology often leads us to poor decision making which can have significant commercial implications.

So how do we go about eradicating unconscious bias from this process?

One of the first steps to diminishing bias is to first acknowledge that unconscious bias does exist and establish when, where and how it affects your company’s recruitment.

An interview is the most obvious place in which biased views will take place but such outlooks can start from before this point. Reviewing a CV for the first time presents issues in itself, and briefing your recruitment partners (internal and external) can even create bias. Phrases such as “that type of person”, “typical” or “culture fit” all suggest, subconscious, biased views. Scenarios in which conclusions need to be made also affect the amount of bias executed: having to come to a decision whilst under time constraints, pressure from senior members of staff and even being tired, can have a huge impact on the outcome.

There is strong belief that HR departments can guide senior members of staff to avoid such obvious bias through training sessions, mentoring, tests and coaching. A robust recruitment process will also assist: Providing thorough and skill-set based job descriptions will eliminate bias relating to backgrounds and behaviours, and having a range of individuals involved in the interview process, providing instant capability feedback, will assist in more accurate observations and views.

Bad recruitment decisions seem to boil down to our need to employ clones of ourselves and, as humans, we can struggle to deviate from the “same = safe, different = dangerous” mindset. Employing individuals from a range of backgrounds has been proven to have a significant positive impact on organisations. However, even after making it through the recruitment process, these biases can play a continuous role in a person’s development, or lack of. One employee may be given more important or interesting projects to work on, offered more support and training, and even offered better pay than another employee.

There is a good argument for scenario-based and case-study training to truly help assist employees in understanding when they form certain biases and how this affects the potential of the workplace. Obviously, there is still a lot of work to do before such biases can disappear entirely from our workplaces but identifying our biases, and moving them from our unconscious to our conscious, is certainly the first positive step we must take as we begin to address the problem.