Unconscious Bias in the Workplace: How It Affects Employees and How to Stop It

If you have been around corporate life long enough (10+) years, I am sure you have come across the word "unconscious bias," better known as discrimination or racism, on a deeper level. Today, organizations are aligning themselves to adopt diversity, inclusion, and equality within their workforces.

In this article, we discuss the genesis of unconscious bias, why it exists, and what you can do to eliminate it in your company for good.

What is unconscious bias?

Also known as implicit bias, unconscious bias stems from our upbringing – it is deep-seated prejudice towards folks in society. It's a habit picked from childhood, which we grow with subconsciously into adulthood, and we carry it with us everywhere, including in the workspaces.

If you act on hasty reactions, or assumptions, when dealing with people, there's a chance you're feeding on unconscious bias. People get upset or affected by your actions if they feel unfairly discriminated against, even if you don't do it intentionally.

If you are fully aware of these actions and how they influence your decision-making, then that's an unconscious bias, so organizations make an effort to ban these assumptions. In the UK, the law forbids it through the Equality Act 2010.

What causes unconscious bias?

Let's face it; human beings are naturally biased. We tend to compare ourselves, our possessions, and situations more than we'll ever admit. We cannot claim to be 100% impartial, but we can unlearn these unnecessary traits to grow healthy relations professionally and socially.

Research by social cognition expert Gordon Moskowitz shows our brains certainly use prejudice to chase our goals subconsciously.

To rub it gently, unconscious bias portrays a mental shortcut by convincing ourselves that it's easier than thinking through hard truths. And so we let it slip as we place people in categories using varied criteria ranging from educational background, gender, weight, sexuality, race, or status.

Sadly, these actions affect our behavior in the workplace causing friction in undesirable ways. We seek to act in our own best interests instead of focusing on our core job functions or those of the group.

At worst, unconscious bias ruins relations and derails business growth. For companies, unconscious bias slithers in the form of employee actions or experiences when we do not act in the business's best interests.

Unconscious bias is scientifically proven – when scientists conduct research based on segregated views on human characteristics, similarities, or dissimilarities. Exploring research on, say, the study of Black, Asian or Caucasian persons is an explicit example of unconscious bias.

How Unconscious Bias Affects People in the Workplace

Unconscious bias in the workplace reveals that we're perhaps guilty of practicing it, while we also recognize that no one is immune to it. So, how does bias work? Gender Bias

From a practical standpoint, how many female financial CEOs do you know of? Or, how many female directors sit on the board in your company? Most HR managers will unconsciously pick a male candidate over a female one because they feel; the male candidate will "confidently" carry out the job as required.

The 2016 European Journal of Finance indicated that expert financial advisors gave biased advice to male millionaire clients because they unconsciously thought female investors weren't conversant about stocks. They didn't bother much about their stock portfolios. Women are more prone to encounter bias in the corporate zone one way or another, whether high status or not.

Unconscious Stereotyping

To overcome unconscious bias, people need to admit that it exists and that they're willing to address it.

Examples of stereotyping include:

  • Asians are good IT gurus.
  • Women fuss about everything.
  • Gay people are too emotional.
  • Black people get angry a lot.
  • White people feel entitled.

Once you recognize unconscious bias and your vulnerability to some of the mentioned clichés, you can choose to change your perception. The best way to combat stereotypes is to recognize these thoughts or actions as they occur, then train your mind to focus on the issue at hand and deal with it from an individualistic point of view. Unconscious Racial Bias

A Stanford study indicates that Asian and African American job applicants who disguised their names at potential recruitment companies were more likely to ace the interviews than applicants that did not. Other stark forms of racial bias include; name-calling, unfair or discriminatory arrests, economic inequality in the job market, the service industry, etc.

Racial bias is sometimes subtle, but it hurts the recipients nevertheless. Racial bias can also be seen in social places where people from different ethnic backgrounds cannot buy or rent property in US or UK cities. It's not a written rule but a preference from a safety point of view.

How we can fight unconscious bias in the Office

First, accept that bias exists. We cannot change presumptions about people unless we train our minds to rationalize decisions and treat everyone with caution rather than relying on unconscious bias. It's tricky at first, but it's doable. To overcome the bias, here's what you can do:

Weigh your decisions instead of making assumptions

When interacting with colleagues in the office or friends at social places, you make hurriedly want to prove a point by taking on a biased POV based on your unconscious bias. To combat this behavior, when discussing issues with your managers or colleagues, share factual information only.

Eliminate bias in processes and strategies

Change your workplace operations. Analyze your processes where bias is susceptible such as decision making, teams' selection, promotions, selection of leaders, including your hiring processes and how the business interacts with customers and visitors.

From there, develop policies to eliminate any form of bias, such as blind recruitment processes, gender-based job ads, staff training, and making your workplace an inclusive and diverse environment.

Give All Talented employees a chance to grow

Don't select the same employees to handle meetings, projects, or out-of-town opportunities.

You might be overlooking great talent in other employees that aren't courageous enough to volunteer for bigger job roles but possess equal skills for the job role in question. To level the playing field, give all staff equal resources and career-boosting attention.

Don't promote your favorite employees subjectively without sharing the opportunity with all potentially qualified individuals in your team.

Have a clear policy on promotion procedures outlining the selection standards for vacant positions in your organization. Make the promotion process transparent to include every interested, qualified candidate.

Conduct regular performance reviews as part of the promotion process so that everyone understands the required KPIs for the job promotion in question.

Conclusion

Enforcing policies around unconscious bias should be consistent and transparent. Companies should promote unity at all costs. We can never rule out unconscious bias in the workplace in its entirety. But we can learn to accept tolerance and inclusivity for all, no matter the social differences. If only we choose to see the good/talent in every individual instead of clustering them in a pot of bias, it makes work easier. It makes building relations much easier when people work in teams and they respect one other.