Recognising Unconscious Bias in the Workplace
By Chania Baldwin, Business Psychologis
  • Unconscious biases are stereotypes, attitudes or categorisations, which are unintentional, but often impact our behaviour.

  • By heightening awareness of unconscious bias, individuals can begin to change how they think about possible inclinations in their decision making.

Unconscious biases, otherwise known as implicit biases, are a daily phenomenon. Everyone has them, and they are present in the workplace. As Horace McCormick notes in The Real Effects of Unconscious Bias in the Workplace, without notice, unconscious biases can impact recruitment processes, performance management of current employees, and shape an organisation’s culture. Given the wide range of implications unconscious bias can have, it is imperative that the HR function is aware of what unconscious bias is, its potential impact on an organisation, and how to address it at work.

What is unconscious bias?

Unconscious biases are the attitudes and stereotypes that we use to make assessments on individuals and groups of people who are outside of our conscious awareness. The conclusions we draw from short observations then affect how we interact, understand and/or engage with such people or groups of people. Our unconscious bias comes from our brain, which has labelled things “good” or “bad” so we can quickly sort information and respond accordingly.

However, conditional learning can also impact our unconscious biases. For instance, a negative experience with a particular individual may cause someone to unconsciously attach biases to an entire group that the individual is associated with.

Why should HR be aware of unconscious bias?

Bias can impact the recruitment process in myriad ways. A prime example is diversity in the workplace. Due to unconscious bias, we tend to hire individuals similar to ourselves and those we believe will “fit in”. In 2014, Google released information concerning the diversity of their workforce. They stated that 70% of employees were men, 3% Latino, and 2% African American. This lack of diversity was attributed partially to the lack of awareness surrounding unconscious bias.

Since then, the tech giant launched an initiative to tackle unconscious biases by introducing seminars, workshops and hands-on sessions designed for employees to address their own unconscious biases. One example of its metrics in the hiring process is through the language used in job descriptions.

Deploying a tool to help mitigate bias in job postings, Google saw an 11% increase of female applicants in response to those job posts (Google Diversity Annual Report, 2020). Why does this matter? Research consistently shows that individuals contribute differently when they are in more diverse groups, compared with when they are in groups of people similar to themselves. In diverse groups, individuals are more likely to contribute information and ideas unique to them, which can positively affect ingenuity, collaboration and decision making within the group.

Performance management is another aspect that can be affected by unconscious bias. Annual reviews have been found to be a process that many managers and employees tend to despise. While managers may find it stressful to deliver feedback to underperforming employees, some employees may deem it a nuisance as they may struggle to present themselves well during the assessment. Researches on appraisal scores have found that managers gave higher scores to those they perceive as similar to themselves. This is not a conscious act, but an unconscious decision that we may make based on our attitudes and beliefs.

Another example of unconscious bias in performance reviews can be seen within group tasks. Forms of performance review commonly thought of as “unbiased” are anonymous group tasks where employees are assessed collectively and anonymously when performing a task. It has been found, however, that the more ambiguous the information about who did what in a project, assumptions are made about gender and employees assumed to be female tend to score lower than those assumed to be male.

Incidentally, in an uncertain business climate where work and business processes are evolving rapidly, performance reviews assessing progress on goals set 12 months ago, now seem irrelevant. There is a growing list of organisations – Adobe, Dell, and IBM to name but a few – that have replaced annual reviews with more frequent informal conversations. Although this has spawned an increase in employee engagement, these conversations do create opportunities for implicit biases to occur.

This is not to say we should abolish all performance reviews. Rather than giving up on performance management, it can be helpful to create a clear criterion and structure for individuals to be assessed against. It is important for employees to understand where they are at in reference to the company and how they are performing, regardless of whether this feedback is delivered formally or informally.

If managers are expected to assess employees’ performance, it is important they are able to recognise their own implicit biases. This is where training in unconscious bias should come in for managers, for them to assess performance in a fair manner. Studies, such as a 2018 research by the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania and a research by social psychologist Dr Jennifer Eberhardt, have discovered that by using various techniques to explore the roots and ramifications of unconscious bias, we can overcome unconscious inclinations in the brain.

How to handle unconscious bias?

During the hiring process, for instance, by having structured interviews, each person is asked the same competency-based questions. This ensures the competencies needed to do that job well are understood. Critics may suggest that this approach limits the scope of an interview. However, research shows that sticking to structured interviews guarantees that relevant questions are being asked (McCormick, 2016). Introducing structured processes can also help slow our brains down, and provide more opportunities for us and our colleagues to address where our unconscious biases may be sneaking in.

By offering unconscious bias behaviour seminars, online courses and guest lectures – and making them available for all employees, especially those in management positions – individuals can learn what unconscious bias is, how to address it within themselves, and how to approach their colleagues about it.

This is also a good way to raise the issue of accountability, to hold yourself and others accountable. When you reach a decision, ask yourself why you have come to that decision and justify it to yourself. Another option is to justify your decision to a colleague and listen to their feedback. Provide feedback as well – if you feel a colleague has unknowingly allowed their implicit bias to seep in, politely mention it and have an open conversation with him or her. With training, everyone can learn to recognise and reflect upon their own potential biases and develop the skills to address others in a productive manner regarding their biases.

Can technology help?

We are all well versed in how technology is used in recruitment, for instance, Boolean searches, the search for “buzz words”, and scrolling through profiles in an attempt to fi nd someone that will get along with the team or share similar interests. We may tell ourselves that we are finding individuals who will fi t in with the culture of the organisation and therefore will enjoy the work and stay with us for years to come, and in the process, reduce recruitment and training costs.

We are kidding ourselves! As the studies by Google and various work/organisational psychologists have revealed, more diverse companies perform better and have more creative ideas. Harnessing technology throughout the recruitment phase can help remove our unconscious biases and create stronger teams.

Using technology that removes candidate photos, names and other personal information – such as where they went to school and where they came from – can help present each candidate on a level playing fi eld and remove implicit stereotypes. The use of technology to view applications based on candidates’ experience or credentials avoids imposing our own thoughts and biases. Instead of requesting a CV or resume, there are a growing number of organisations that invite a job candidate to write a passage and use that as the starting point before inviting them to a structured interview.

Employing this same method to conduct appraisals or reviews for internal positions can help manage unconscious biases. Ultimately, structure, training and accountability are three solutions that, if introduced, can facilitate the confronting of unconscious biases. In doing so, opportunities are generated to bring different people with fresh ideas into the organisation, as well as stimulate our own personal growth.

Recognising Unconscious Bias in
the Workplace
PR 11 January, 2022