The Impact of Unconscious Bias In the Workplace

BY Sarah Stein // Content Marketing Copywriter

What it is and what you can do about it

Whether we realize it or not, each of us have ingrained preconceived notions that make us feel a certain way about the people we meet, the places we choose to eat, and many other decisions we make. This stems from our background – the environment and experiences we’ve had that have shaped the person we are today. The ability to formulate stereotypes have been hard-wired into our biological make-up as a decision making skill, facilitating our survival. Everyone does it.

While we are all somewhat guilty of placing stereotypes on others, we often find ourselves appalled when others try to put us in a box. Inside most of us is a resentment towards all the people who have judged us when they knew nothing of our experiences, talents or skills. We feel robbed of our potential opportunities, our ability to show exactly who we are, and how far we’ve come when we’re on the receiving end of unconscious bias. So, when we judge others based on our inaccurate view of a similar group that they resemble, it’s an injustice to them, and should be recognized as such.

When it comes to the workplace, having certain discriminatory biases can greatly affect the culture and the people that work within the organization. That’s why it’s important to understand and recognize these biases, especially when it comes to recruitment, promotion, and performance management.

Unconscious bias, also known as ‘implicit’ bias, can take many forms. The most common types of bias include:

  1. Affinity bias: People naturally gravitate to those who, in general, feel very similarly to themselves. We may even avoid those who seem to not share our beliefs, background, or even appearance. During the recruitment process, this could lead us to feel that a candidate is not talented enough, or not suited for a specific position, because we don’t have the same characteristics or experiences in common. As an example, some companies may view a candidate’s personal social media channels, or look for athletic participation as an indicator for teamwork, to try and gain perspective on if they think the person would be a fit. Unfortunately, these practices can unintentionally cause feelings of affinity bias based on what we see.
  2. Confirmation bias: We have a tendency to look for or favor the information about someone that confirms beliefs we already hold. This bias can prevent us from analyzing the factual evidence about someone, and instead, only validate our initial thoughts and opinions. A great example of this would be long-held regional notions that the south is “too slow” or that northerners tend to be “rude.”
  3. Halos/Horns Effect: When we learn something impressive about someone, we tend to put a “halo” on them, and see only the positive attributes they hold. Conversely, if we can only focus on the negative aspects of someone, we call that the “horns” effect. Apart from leading us to choose the wrong person for the role during the interview process, this bias can also cause us to look over someone’s more problematic behaviors after they’ve already joined the team. This is why it is important to get multiple viewpoints during the interview process. From an ongoing standpoint, objective performance criteria should be set to show growth or retraction versus a few anecdotes that could cloud objectivity.

There are other forms of bias that are more self-explanatory, such as gender bias, beauty bias, and conformity bias. Each, nonetheless can create lasting impacts to the overall diversity and culture of a company. What should employers do to prevent unconscious bias from being left unchecked?

HR should lead the initiative beginning with a thorough review and update of hiring practices on  a regular basis. With the introduction of new AI technology, HR managers can now utilize these tools and platforms to scan job postings for any unintentional discriminatory language or specific words that might turn a qualified candidate away. It can also be used for “blind recruitment,” where information that could lead to unconscious bias is removed, such as a candidate’s age, name, location, or name of the school they attended, and help make a more objective decision based on their skills and talents. While these technologies are designed to reduce bias, there is one caveat; if you list all qualities of “top performers” you can see very similar personality types that may not lead to the best collaboration. 

Our HR Director, Caitlin Roark, explains her process of eliminating these types of bias during the recruitment process. “Detailing a list of qualifications and attributes needed for a certain role can be a seemingly simple task. But the key is to first evaluate the criteria to see if you are unintentionally leaving candidates out of the potential pool. Does the position truly require a 2-year or 4-year degree or is experience and transferable skills prized at a higher value?” At Levelwing, our goal is to be certain we haven’t left any stone unturned when incorporating a diverse mix of talent from all types of backgrounds. We understand the value that unique experiences can bring to the table, and strive to seek out those candidates that share our work principles.

While we rely on our HR managers and directors to do the bulk of the recruiting, HR staff should not be the only ones concerned with implicit bias. To make a more harmonious and productive team, all employees should be armed with consistent and regularly updated unconscious bias training in the workplace. This could be as easy as a quarterly meeting to open the floor to questions about discrimination policies or efforts to push forward more diversity initiatives. Compared to one-off annual training sessions that are often tedious, consistent micro-sessions are proven to be more effective at stopping systemic issues. 

When we look at unconscious bias versus blatant discrimination, we see a distinguishable difference. Unconscious bias is something that we have more power to control and subsequently change. By creating structures like awareness training and organized conversations around the topic, employees are given the opportunity to recognize it in themselves, and work towards the goals of effectively reducing it in their daily decisions. Labeling the different forms of bias also helps to break it down to the granular level, so employees can realize when they are experiencing these thoughts and understand how to combat them. 

No matter where you work, even employees with the best intentions can still fall into old stereotyping behaviors in one form or another. But the good news is that changing attitudes and our implicit bias is possible. It starts with awareness and honest, open conversations about how they pervade our lives and the organizations we work in.