The human psyche is like a sponge, soaking up experiences and ideas to create deep-seated thought patterns. These can become hardened perspectives that can color our assumptions and interpretations — often so subtly that we don’t even recognize that it’s happening. But while preconceptions can create problems in many aspects of life, unconscious bias in the workplace represents devastating consequences for businesses.
Unconscious Bias Hurts Diversity and Inclusion
There are many reasons why bias and business don’t mix. How does unconscious bias affect the workplace? For one thing, it’s estimated that workplace bias costs American businesses approximately $64 billion every year between the costs of losing and having to replace top talent due to unfairness and discrimination. Bias also tarnishes productivity and engagement: Enterprise employees that perceive bias are nearly three times as likely to be disengaged at work and 2.6 times as likely to withhold ideas and solutions. And that’s to say nothing of the legal ramifications of discrimination (a natural byproduct of workplace bias).
This is because bias is the polar opposite of diversity and inclusion.
“Diversity and inclusion” is a term that describes the strategic, intentional effort of recruiting and providing opportunities to talent from different groups or cultural backgrounds, and ensuring that these individuals are socially welcomed into the organization. This goes well beyond tokenism (where representatives from marginalized groups are hired in a superficial attempt by the company to appear progressive). When all hires are given equal footing in the workplace, amazing things start to happen.
Businesses that rank high in gender diversity are 25% more likely to see above-average profits, and those with ethnically diverse executive teams are 36% more likely to outperform their competition. At the same time, research suggests that inclusive companies are 1.7 times more innovative, 1.8 times more resilient to change, and see more than twice the cash flow per employee than those that are not. Seventy-nine of executives of diversity-focused organizations agree that inclusion is an essential driver of company reputation.
Simply put, a diverse workforce brings with it a diverse set of skills, perspectives, and ideas. And when people approach hiring, promoting, and other essential decisions with unconscious biases, diversity and inclusion are often the first things to go.
This is a major problem because unconscious preconceptions are implicit. And when biases are so deeply ingrained — (going unnoticed by those holding them!) — how can business leaders and HR professionals address them to promote diversity in their companies?
By learning to recognize it.
How to Detect Unconscious Bias
When people talk about bias, it can be easy to focus on racial-, cultural-, and gender-related issues, and for good reason. These kinds of biases have a long and shameful history and have only (relatively) recently become a true focus area for improvement in corporate America. But bias isn’t limited to racism and sexism. It covers a much broader scope of prejudice. As such, the first step toward eliminating unconscious bias in the workplace is knowing what it looks like — in all of its forms.
Types of unconscious bias include:
- Age Bias
Also called ageism, this bias is defined as judgments about an individual based on their age. An example of age bias in the workplace is hiring or promoting individuals because of attributes that are stereotypical of their age, such as favoring a candidate because they are younger (and thus assumed to be more energetic or productive) or older (and assumed to be more experienced).
- Affinity Bias
An extremely common form of prejudice, affinity bias occurs when someone favors another based on their personal bond or connection. For example, affinity bias is displayed when a manager gives special privileges to a team member because they are a friend of the family.
- Appearance Bias
Appearance bias evaluates people based on physical attributes, such as height, weight, or beauty. The tendency to hire and promote conventionally ‘attractive’ people comes from appearance bias, as does the incorrect assumption that taller individuals are more authoritative.
- Attribution Bias
More abstract than certain other types of bias, attribution bias is nonetheless potentially damaging. Here, a manager may incorrectly attribute an employee's successes or failures to elements of their personality, when in fact the relevant factors come from outside sources. For example, assuming that a candidate is a poor choice for a position because they were late to the interview, when in reality circumstances beyond the candidate’s control (such as incorrect directions or a sick family member) were actually to blame.
- Confirmation Bias
It’s been said that humans aren’t predisposed to find the truth — we just want to be right. That’s a cynical way of saying that most of us fall prey to our own confirmation biases. Confirmation bias occurs when we favor evidence or individuals that confirm what we already believe. An example of confirmation bias is rejecting or marginalizing an employee's opinions because they are not compatible with management’s.
- Conformity Bias
Collaboration is essential to business, but collaboration and conformity are two different things. Conformity bias is the tendency to accept ideas more readily when they align with the majority. For example, an employee who declines to share an opposing opinion in a meeting may be exhibiting conformity bias.
- Halo/Horns Effect
Halo and Horns biases occur when a single perception or judgment about an individual supersedes all other observations. The halo effect describes positive impressions and the horns effect refers to negative impressions. As an example, refusing to hire or promote someone because they have a criminal record is representative of the horns effect.
- Intuition Bias
When we make decisions based on ‘gut feelings’ rather than observable data, we’re demonstrating intuition bias. An example might be dismissing a candidate because the interviewer felt ‘uneasy’ about them.
- Name Bias
Names tell a story, and in many cases, it’s a story of culture, ethnicity, and personal belief. Name bias assigns various connotations — positive or negative — to a name. This is seen in hiring data, where job candidates with names that are considered traditionally Anglo or European receive a significantly higher percentage of callbacks.
- Sex/Gender Bias
Gender bias is a major issue in the workplace. Even when candidates are equal in terms of capability and experience, men are 30% more likely to be hired than women. But this kind of bias goes beyond gender: Sexual orientation and identity are both relevant issues that must also be considered. Sex/gender bias in the workplace may involve situations such as failing to involve a transgender employee in certain discussions out of fear of using an incorrect pronoun.
- Similarity Bias
There’s a human tendency to unconsciously approve of those who look, act, or otherwise remind us of ourselves. Similarity bias allows this tendency to affect business-related decisions. For example, a manager promoting a team member because they come from similar backgrounds or attended the same schools would qualify as similarity bias.
What is important to recognize is that bias can take many different forms, but what each has in common is that they disregard logic and evidence in favor of unproven preconceptions. Biases color our perceptions. They influence our decisions in very subtle ways. And again, the most difficult thing about moving past these biases is that they are usually not intentional.
Thankfully, recognizing bias for what it is makes it possible for businesses to root it out.
Overcoming Unconscious Bias
Biases are hard to identify and even harder to accept, but there are steps you can take to promote inclusion and equity within your workplace. In many cases, this needs to start with training.
Unconscious bias training (UB training) is an approach designed to help organizations raise awareness of the kinds of implicit biases that impact decisions and interactions in the work environment. Through structured courses — often provided by third-party agencies — employees and leadership learn to recognize harmful preconceptions and broaden their mindsets for a more inclusive environment. Many businesses go further than basic UB training and invest in helping workforces actually build the skills they need to promote inclusivity in the workplace through behavioral inclusion education.
When everyone in the company is aware of what a bias is and the kind of damage it can do, they’ll be more capable of recognizing it. Have team members help each other by calling out biases when they encounter them. This shouldn’t be done antagonistically — the goal here isn’t to shame anyone or embarrass them, it’s to raise awareness and overcome long-held habits.
As your teams become more cognizant of bias, it may be a good idea to take a closer look at some of the decisions being made throughout the company. Review the facts and the conclusions, and see if there are any areas where bias may have tilted the scales one way or another.
Creating Structural Inclusion
Systemic biases are often more difficult to address. Integrated deeply into existing systems, these tendencies influence established processes in ways that can run counter to diversity, inclusion, and equity. Often, the best way to promote structural inclusion is with an overhaul of existing processes, replacing them with equitable systems throughout your business. This means focusing on inclusive benefits and working with your employees to better understand what benefits they value most. It may also mean expanding your definition of accessibility.
Reconsidering the Decision-Making Process
Deadlines are a part of business, but not everything should be rushed. Snap decisions too often rely on unrelated emotional factors or assumptions, which allow biases to creep in. Establish new expectations in decision-making with a focus on careful deliberation. This will allow everyone to spend more time considering facts.
Establishing a Diversity Committee
Every new initiative needs supporters and owners. As you make diversity and inclusion central to your business, choose representatives from your various teams and departments to found a diversity committee. This group will help promote and enforce the right cultural behaviors to ensure that workplace biases don’t get in the way of personal or organizational success.
Supporting Every Employee
The human mind is extremely complex, built on literally millions of thoughts, experiences, and interactions. It’s to be expected that these psychological elements might distort our otherwise-rational decision-making capabilities.
But even if bias is common, it doesn’t mean that we should have to accept it. Unconscious bias in the workplace limits opportunities, harms productivity and engagement, and creates a non-inclusive culture that leads directly to employee attrition.
On the other hand, those businesses that put in the effort to overcome bias are well-positioned to get more out of their workforces. Helping everyone reach their full potential with structural support — from UB training to wellbeing programs — lets your company be a place where people thrive.
Give your teams the chance to excel. Talk to a Gympass Wellbeing Specialist to learn more about inclusion and employee wellbeing today!
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The Gympass Editorial Team empowers HR leaders to support worker wellbeing. Our original research, trend analyses, and helpful how-tos provide the tools they need to improve workforce wellness in today's fast-shifting professional landscape.