How Does Unconscious Bias Affect a Workplace

How Does Unconscious Bias Affect a Workplace

The worst issues at work are frequently those that people are unaware of as they are occurring. One of the most notorious types is “unconscious bias,” which can lead to a number of conflicts at work and may be challenging to eradicate if diversity training is not carried out. 

Forbes claims that, in contrast to the 40 pieces of information that are processed consciously, the human brain processes 11 million pieces of information per second. In light of the fact that a sizable portion of decisions are processed and arrived at subconsciously, it is crucial for organizations to educate their workforce through diversity training about the risks connected with this to create and uphold a truly inclusive and high-performing culture. In this blog, we’ll discuss what it is to have an unconscious bias, why it might be problematic at work, and how to tackle it in the best ways possible. 

What is Unconscious Bias?

Unconscious or implicit bias refers to judgments that are formed without conscious awareness that relate certain attributes to social categories like race, gender, or handicap. A lack of workplace diversity training and inclusion is what mostly leads to these natural inclinations or stereotypes. 

Preconceived ideas that affect decisions or behavior in the workplace even when people affected are unaware of it are known as unconscious bias. It’s an instinctive form of bias that can be based on a variety of viewpoints on things like color, age, religion, sexual orientation, and much more. Unconscious bias can be particularly difficult to deal with because people who exhibit it frequently believe they are performing appropriately and may not have had their beliefs questioned previously. 

Our upbringing, experiences in life, and cultural beliefs all have an impact on the decisions we make. The capacity of the human brain to employ these experiences as shortcuts has evolved over time, allowing us to traverse the enormous amount of information to which we are constantly exposed. Although this cognitive function can be very beneficial, it frequently causes people to make rash conclusions that are frequently incorrect or poorly reasoned. This can negatively affect hiring practices, hinder employee growth, undermine diversity, and increase attrition in the workplace. Hence, implementing diversity training is a must. 

These issues are typically covered briefly at orientation and avoided afterwards because they can result in uncomfortable conversations (or worse). But, in recent years, we have observed businesses—and HR departments in particular—face biases more directly, following the example set by other facets of society. Business-wise, there are solid justifications for this: Without considering any legal fees or settlements from lawsuits alleging discrimination, it is estimated that the total cost of replacing all American employees who leave their jobs due to discrimination or unfairness exceeds $60 billion annually. 

In order to identify and avoid unconscious bias in the workplace, HR directors are starting to play a more active, continuous role in implementing various diversity training measures. 

Types of Unconscious Bias

The idea of unconscious bias is complicated by the variety of biases that can exist and is a prevalent aspect of many people’s cognitive activities and is an important topic covered in most forms of diversity training. Some of them consist of: 

  • Gender bias – predilection for one gender over another, which is frequently influenced by deeply held ideas about gender norms and stereotypes. When one gender is given preference over another at work, gender bias is present. That would imply that some roles aren’t given to women because decision-makers think men would be better equipped to fill them. Also, it may result in the famed pay disparity between men and women holding equivalent jobs. Regardless of their qualifications, women are often less likely to be considered for leadership positions and less likely to be promoted. Because of an unconscious bias that they are always superior to the alternatives, this can also result in businesses selecting weak CEOs
  • Racial bias – One of the most prevalent forms of bias in the workplace is the discrimination of a person based on their perceived race, however it may also be one of the subtlest. Racism can take many different forms, from rejecting job applications from people with names that are considered as “ethnic” to refusing to promote someone who is a different race. Businesses have attempted to advance in this area in the past by launching diversity training programs, with varying degrees of success. Even when businesses are making efforts to reform, structural racism can still exist and be profoundly ingrained in how people act in the workplace.  

  • Age bias: This comprises a variety of age-related presumptions. Two instances come to mind: presuming younger employees are unqualified for leadership roles or positions of greater responsibility, and supposing older employees don’t understand or enjoy technology. The belief that employees should be paid depending on their age rather than their job can also be a manifestation of age bias 
  • Sexuality bias: When it comes to the LGBTQ+ community, this is comparable to racial and gender biases in that it entails preconceptions about someone’s sexual orientation. Once more, this may result in people being denied promotions while having the qualifications, receiving lower pay, not being given consideration for specific jobs, and more. Today, this bias is one of the most important types that must be covered in various diversity training
  • Affinity bias: This kind of unconscious bias happens when an individual favors another individual because they are similar in some way. It can be an issue even for those who are aware of their own biases. They might share interests, a way of life, personalities, educational backgrounds, friends, etc. As this bias turns into an affinity bias, favoritism and exclusion result, frequently without anybody being aware of it
  • Confirmation Bias: When people have a tendency to seek out information that supports their opinions while ignoring that which contradicts their beliefs, this is known as confirmation bias. This kind of bias influences how people gather and process new information as well as how they remember and make sense of their past experiences. In contrast to a more positive response when younger or more recent colleagues need diversity training for the same thing, for instance, if an employee had a preconceived belief that older employees aren’t adept at using new technology, they may react negatively when their tenured colleagues have questions about using a new software. The outcome is unjust treatment of individuals at work based on erroneous assumptions, which may make some employees hesitant to ask for assistance
  • Conformity Bias: When people follow their peer group’s behavior rather than using their own discretion or critical thinking, conformity bias emerges. People may feel compelled to concur with others’ opinions in a group context, such as a work meeting, even if they haven’t given the ideas any thought. This is also known as groupthink, and it can be harmful to innovation when many individuals miss the same chances or decide to ignore a clear problem that needs at least one person to speak up about. Groupthink is a very common phenomena that must be addressed in diversity training
  • The Horns Effect: Here, unconscious bias makes numerous additional negative judgments about an individual based on one badly viewed quality or attribute. While making hiring decisions, HR departments may run into this situation where a single characteristic—like a nose piercing or blue hair—can cause a hiring manager to make a lot of incorrect assumptions about a person. The “Halo effect,” which is well named as the opposite bias, can also cause issues at work
  • Contrast Effect: This bias occurs when a recruiter conducts a strong interview with a candidate they truly like and then begins to hold that interview in high regard relative to all other interviews they do for a while. This might inspire a variety of other prejudices. Diversity training for hiring managers and recruiters must address this bias 

The Impact of Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

Even though it is widely acknowledged that creativity and variety of thinking are essential for ensuring bottom-line results and workplace efficiency, our irrational preferences for others who are like us continue to seriously hinder our ability to foster these conditions. 

Every interaction we have is susceptible to biases, from the wording of job descriptions and decisions about who to employ or promote to supervisors ignoring subpar work from people they know and like. 

Biases in hiring might result in generalizations that rely on a candidate’s suitability for the position not on their qualifications but rather on how their name or nationality is considered to have originated. So, diversity training becomes essential. 

According to a survey by Raconteur, while ethnic minority applicants submitted identical CVs and cover letters, just 15% of them obtained a positive response from employers, compared to an average of 24% for white British applicants. Many occupations that have historically attracted one gender over the other, such as male engineers or female nurses, are likewise prone to gender bias. While there may be established preconceptions in some professions, managers should market, and hire based on the skills and traits needed for the position and be conscious of the ease with which gender prejudices might develop. 

Businesses are at a high risk of reputational harm and any related financial consequences as problems arise when there is strong preference bias of any kind, which can result in workplace bullying, illegal harassment, or discrimination. Hence, diversity training is a must.  

Overcoming Unconscious Bias and Promoting Diversity Training

Because implicit biases are unconscious by nature and may be challenging to recognize and accept, they can be challenging to address. Promoting a culture of respect for diversity and diversity training, however, encourages the expression of varied ideas, which increases creativity and innovation. This is crucial for the workplace as well as for how companies respond to client needs and, ultimately, for building their brand. 

Consider the following to reduce unconscious bias in the workplace: 

  • Invest in appropriate, regular and long-term diversity training 
  • Inform staff members about different forms of unconscious bias and the dangers of permitting such behavior to become the norm
  • Check for unconscious bias in each other and challenge statements or remarks about cultural or gender stereotypes
  • Check the reasoning behind a decision to see if all the facts were taken into account or if biases crept in
  • Slow down decision-making on purpose to lessen the chance of making a rash choice
  • Invest in establishing a diversity and inclusion committee to create and uphold diversity training procedures and enforce cultural norms that are consistent with the organization’s diversity goals

10 Steps to Eliminate Unconscious Bias

While it is unrealistic to entirely eliminate all prejudices, we may make significant progress in minimizing their negative consequences in the workplace. To overcome unconscious prejudice in your company, follow these ten steps and put in place some diversity training measures: 

  1. Familiarize yourself with unconscious bias.

Make biases known to employees at all levels of your firm. The first step in eliminating unconscious bias is awareness training since it enables staff members to acknowledge that everyone has them and to identify their own. 

  1. Assess which biases are most likely to affect you.

Take an assessment to figure out which of your perceptions are most likely to be governed by unconscious biases. Armed with that information, you can take up proactive diversity training measures to address them on a personal basis.  

  1. Determine how biases can affect your organization.

Who gets employed, who gets promoted, who gets increases, and who receives what kind of work are all frequently impacted by biases. Do an internal analysis of the touch points across the employment lifecycle to find out where employees may be more susceptible to prejudice from their peers. You can take action to make sure that prejudices are taken into account when significant decisions are made, such as making your pay plans more equitable, by being aware of the areas where bias is most prone to infiltrate. 

  1. Train employees to identify and tackle bias.

Diversity training is a corporate approach that teams can annually implement for all company personnel. These trainings, which are an essential component of learning and development programs, can help coordinate corporate initiatives to foster an inclusive workplace while enabling individuals to lessen bias in their regular job. Provide your company’s Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) with feedback on how bias education is implemented into employee learning programs if your business has such groups. It could be time to construct ERGs if you don’t already have them. 

  1. Modernize your hiring process with diversity training

You might need to make some significant adjustments to ensure that unconscious biases don’t negatively affect hiring decisions. Studies, for instance, indicate that the language used in job descriptions can deter women from applying for occupations. Make job descriptions more inclusive so you may choose from a larger pool of candidates. Moreover, think about providing sample tasks to candidates so you can see what kind of work they might contribute. Standardize the interview procedure, as unstructured interviews frequently result in poor recruiting choices. 

  1. Let data inform your decisions.

Make it a priority to diversify your management staff in order to include diverse perspectives and demographics. Identifying priorities, goals, and potential obstacles to fostering an inclusive workplace is a necessary component of establishing a successful diversity training program. Evaluating success in achieving those objectives can help guide the development of your D&I program’s implementation tactics. 

  1. Bring diversity into your hiring decisions.

Make sure there is diversity among the group in charge of hiring new employees if your goal is to have a varied workforce. Otherwise, despite your best efforts, you might keep hiring the same types of homogenous employees. Try replacing the concept of “cultural fit” with “value contribution” to lessen conformity or affinity bias. It’s simple to hire people who share the same traits, experiences, and backgrounds as those of your current employees if you’re trying to find applicants who will fit into the culture of your business. Yet, a “value add” mindset pushes recruiting managers to consider the distinctive contributions that each fresh applicant makes. 

  1. Encourage team members to speak up about biases.

The likelihood that unconscious biases will have an impact on an organization decreases with the number of participants and transparency of the decision-making process. Provide psychological safety for employees to foster a culture that values open communication. People experience psychological safety when they believe speaking up won’t result in punishment or humiliation. When employees suspect unconscious biases may have had a role in a decision, they won’t be hesitant to speak out and correct the record in a safe setting. Diversity training measures can help initiate a discussion on such topics. 

  1. Hold employees accountable.

When discriminatory practices are exposed, diversity training measures should be taken to protect the security and wellness of the impacted employees. But measures should also be taken to make sure the offender is aware of the effect they had on their coworkers and the workplace. An excellent initial step is involving HR, which should also entail recording the occurrence and adhering to company standards for handling prejudice. It’s acceptable when employees who were negatively affected by discriminatory behavior choose not to confront or involve the offender. What matters is that the individuals they selected to share their story with value, prioritize, and affirm their needs, and that everyone else involved respects their wish for privacy. 

  1. Establish objectives for inclusion, equity, and diversity.

Everyone has unconscious prejudices, but many coworkers are more susceptible to being treated unfairly when those biases manifest in discriminating behavior. Our businesses will become stronger, and we’ll all be in a better position to put people first the sooner we acknowledge this truth and actively work to remove our biases through diversity training. 

Companies should concentrate on developing diverse workplaces for a variety of reasons, including improved employee retention rates and more innovation. To ensure that your diversity training program is more than just a platitude and that you make progress toward creating a diverse staff, set diversity and inclusion targets. 

Strengthscape is a global consultancy firm that offers customized coaching and training programs to Fortune 500 companies and more. We assist firms in increasing employee connection and engagement, promoting workplace advocacy, and empowering managers to take a more people- and data-driven approach through diversity training programs. Our Diversity and Inclusion Champion Certification enables organizations to navigate the journey from their current state to an inclusive and profitable organization.