How common is unconscious bias in the workplace?

Have you ever asked yourself if you have made decisions just because you felt it was the right choice – without checking if the reason is evidence-based or coherent? It may be difficult to admit but our brains are wired to make decisions based on unsupported judgements formed from our past experiences and background at times. In psychological terms, this is referred to as ‘unconscious biases’.

Within the workplace, many unconscious biases tend to be more exhibited towards minority groups based on their race, gender identification, sexual orientation and age – which in turn can be discriminatory and can create a hostile environment within the team. Biases have historically kept women and people of colour out of the boardroom and prevented many employees from reaching their full potential.

Why is there a need to address unconscious bias in the workplace?

Biases can be costly to a business when decisions are made irrationally due to personal preferences. Management consulting firm McKinsey commissioned its diversity report which identified that the financial performance of a business is highly dependent on the team’s gender, ethnic, and cultural diversity globally. Specifically, the report revealed that businesses with ethnically diverse executive teams are 33% more profitable than those without.

However, in spite of many studies supporting the benefits of a diverse workforce such as innovation and employee retention; many organisations still neglect the need for diversity. Businesses today need to take action and not only diversify their organisations but also minimise unconscious biases that permeate the business. These unconscious biases lead to a lack of diversification. In order to attract and retain the best talent, it is essential for organisations to implement an inclusive culture whereby all employees know they have the equal opportunity to progress based on their ability. As such, organisations are starting to provide training in identifying unconscious bias and ways to handle it.

What are the different types of unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias in the workplace can take many forms such as the following:

  • Affinity bias – When we subconsciously prefer to warm up to people like ourselves;
  • Cultural bias – When we judge people through our own cultural lens, without actually looking into their skills or performance levels;
  • Confirmation bias – A type of cognitive bias that makes you accept evidence that confirms your beliefs and reject evidence that contradicts them.
  • Halo Effect – When we use one positive judgement about a person to make an overall judgement about them. For example, if an employee is a great sales person, they will be great at managing a team of high performers too;
  • “Cloven hoof” effect – It is the opposite of the Halo Effect and uses one negative judgement to cloud the person’s other areas of performance. As stated in the research conducted by Himani Oberai and Ila Mehrotra Anand, an example of “cloven hoof’ effect bias would be labelling someone as lazy and unprofessional due to their poor dressing sense;
  • Gender bias – When there is a difference in the way men and women have their performance assessed in the workplace.

Is culture fit a type of unconscious bias?

All organisations like to define themselves by the type of culture they associate themselves with – be it performance-based, flexible or KPI-driven. However, culture fit may sometimes also mean ‘conformity’ whereby in order to succeed, one must think and act like the dominant culture group in the organisation. According to research conducted by Harvard Business School Professor, Francesca Gino; many employees have reported that they feel pressured to conform. While conformity may be a short-term Band-Aid solution, this is later on manifested through the employee’s decreased engagement and productivity.

Many have been unsuccessful to establish a diverse and inclusive culture due to the dominant culture group within the organisation which may choose not to adhere to company values. A dominant culture group within the organisation is a clear example of affinity bias whereby people tend to give better opportunities for progression to people in their own network of friends. Affinity bias starts at the hiring phase and is also present in performance reviews and day-to-day interactions. In order to establish an inclusive workplace and retain your best employees, affinity bias therefore needs to be managed at all stages of the employee life cycle.

How to outsmart unconscious biases?

Like so many other organisational dynamics, it starts with managers to promote inclusivity and eliminate unconscious biases by inviting their teams to speak openly and honestly with one another. Below are key areas to explore when you’re looking to establish diversity and inclusion programs:

1.Educate your managers and their teams about entry points for bias

Biases are commonly found at the hiring stage and performance appraisals. To circumvent this at the hiring stage, many companies have started administering cognitive ability tests, personality tests and skills tests so they can obtain objective data about the applicant’s suitability and future performance on the job. In doing so, all employees would have the same opportunity to demonstrate their abilities through a standardised evaluation process. By training managers on how to identify unconscious bias in their employees’ behaviours, organisations can ensure that all employees have the potential to progress fairly. Managers can also share their learnings on unconscious bias and set a good example for their teams.

2. Reinforce accountability

You can allocate an ‘accountability buddy’ to each person in the office so they can help each other become more aware of their behaviours. In doing so, there will be a concerted effort towards ensuring that unconscious bias in the workplace is minimised. We recommend performing this exercise in addition to inclusion and awareness activities.

3. Make sure that you are being inclusive

This can be as simple as acknowledging everyone in a meeting and not just talking to those you get along the best with. Make sure you also arrive on time to your meetings just so other attendees feel that their time is valued. Other small changes such as sitting next to someone new in a meeting will make you come across as more inclusive. In group meetings, you also need to ensure that you are providing a supportive dialogue and giving constructive criticism – rather than stopping people from voicing views that you don’t agree with.

Want to eliminate unconscious bias?

Biases come in various forms and by creating an environment for open conversations, you are making a strong effort to address unconscious biases in the workplace. If you are an organisation looking to share your experience on how you’ve helped your team eliminate unconscious bias, please don’t hesitate to contact us on 02 9285 1000. We can help to advise on the various ways that your organisation can become more inclusive and diverse as well as share best practices that can potentially help you make a step closer towards eradicating unconscious bias.

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