How to Reduce Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

How to Reduce Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

Talking about race, gender, diversity, and inclusion in the workplace can be an uncomfortable topic, particularly for people who have never faced bias based on their identity. After all, no one wants to think they’re the kind of person who will willingly treat someone differently because of where they come from, how they identify or the colour of their skin.

However, talking about unconscious bias, or implicit bias in the workplace is vital. Bias in the workplace isn’t just the first step on the road to legal problems, but it also stifles your employees, reduces morale, and can lead to you losing your best employees because they don’t feel welcome in the workplace.

With workplace bias costing an estimated $64 billion in the US alone [1], and consumers increasingly more aware of how businesses treat their employees and regard minority groups, addressing unconscious bias in your workplace has never been more important.

What is Unconscious Workplace Bias?

Workplace bias, or implicit bias, happens when a person subconsciously assumes something about someone else without being aware of it. Some common examples include:

• Assuming that someone acting more masculine is professional, but not likeable - and vice versa for someone feminine [2] - known as gender bias
• Preferring CVs or job applications from candidates with “Anglo” sounding names [3] - known as name bias
• Assuming that older candidates won’t adapt well to your technology stack [4] - known as age bias
• Preferring employees who have been to prestigious universities, or have worked for favoured companies in the past - known as the halo effect
• Hiring based on “gut feeling” alone - known as affinity bias

This, of course, isn’t an exhaustive list. Unconscious bias can show up in a wide variety of different forms, in different situations, and can be seen in lots of different actions in the workplace. While some expressions of bias might be more prevalent in certain industries - such as age bias in tech startups, or gender bias in fitness businesses - it’s important to be aware of each type of unconscious bias that exists [5] so you can effectively aim to reduce them.

How to Reduce Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

1. Learn About Unconscious Bias

By reading this, you’re already making good progress towards reducing unconscious bias in the workplace. Taking this first step will start to make you aware of how people within your company act, and it’ll put you in a better position to help employees or candidates if they think they’ve been affected by unconscious biases.

It’s also important to introduce training resources to teach everyone in the company about unconscious biases, remembering to incorporate examples relevant to your business to help people identify when they’re being used by employees, candidates, or managers.

As with other areas of training, you should aim to run this training as part of candidate onboarding, as well as regularly throughout their employment, to make sure everyone remains familiar with unconscious bias in the workplace.

2. Analyse Where Biases Occur

Workplace bias can creep in at almost every junction of modern working life, so it’s important to evaluate all areas where your employees will be asked to make decisions or interact with their coworkers. While this might sound like a mammoth task, it’s key to remember that combating discrimination starts by learning where implicit bias can cause the most harm for your company.

For example, decision making during the hiring process can easily become compromised by unconscious biases. Discrimination during the hiring process isn’t just harmful to candidates, but it can result in expensive discrimination legal battles, even if your hiring managers went into the process with diversity and inclusion in mind. Prioritising resources towards reducing unconscious bias in this area will reduce the risk of losing good candidates to implicit bias and of facing discrimination charges.

However, that’s not to say that you can afford to ignore discrimination in other areas of your company. You should analyse how implicit biases affect all aspects of the workplace, from group performance, the people you hire, and how the company handles employee disputes.

Once you’ve got a better understanding of how biases can influence decision making in certain areas, you’ll be able to create resources and build processes that help to reduce them.

3. Check Your Job Application Posts

Studies show that job advertisements can often put off candidates from diverse backgrounds from applying for certain job roles [6]. For example, gendered language in job posts for traditionally male-dominated jobs often discourage women from applying, leading to a reinforced false belief that men and women are simply drawn to particular jobs or careers.

Similarly, your job application posts must be clear about what experience and qualifications candidates are required to have if any. Research shows that men are more likely to be promoted on potential, while women are promoted based on proven performance [7], so to eliminate this gender bias, you need to be clear about candidate and employee expectations.

A key indicator of whether your job advertisements are contributing to unconscious biases in the hiring process is to evaluate who applies for your jobs, what qualifications and experience they have, and where they found your job advertisement. It’s recommended that you advertise any vacancies on at least two different job boards to advertise towards different audiences, and the more places you can advertise, the better.

4. Create Equal Access for “Hot Jobs”

In every company, there are bound to be job positions that are more desirable than others. Unfortunately, in many businesses, particularly where these “hot jobs” are in more senior positions, they can end up being offered only to people in the informal networks of senior staff and C-suite executives which, historically, benefits men more than women or other gender identities.

As such, your company needs to introduce processes where these “hot jobs” are subject to the same job advertising standards as other vacant positions. For example, if it’s your company’s policy to always advertise externally for vacant positions as well as evaluate internal promotions, you need to ensure this procedure is followed.

Similarly, you should also make sure that if the hiring manager is the same person who will be managing the new employee, they should have at least one other person evaluating their decisions during the hiring process.

5. Change Your Hiring Process

You should think of your hiring process as your first line of defence against unconscious biases. If your hiring process is impartial, then this paves the way to eliminate implicit biases elsewhere in your company.

One of the main reasons why companies struggle with diversity is because hiring managers are often allowed to hire based on “gut instinct”. Not only that, but they tend to be the only person evaluating applicants, interviewing, and assessing who to hire. This means it’s easy for that hiring manager’s biases to contaminate the process.

As such, it’s good practice to have multiple people active during the hiring process to hold each other accountable. This helps your company to maintain a written record of why people were hired.

It’s also recommended that you have someone who removes details from candidate’s applications like their name, age, gender identity, sex, or dates, so whoever evaluates applications does so entirely based on the candidate’s knowledge and experience. You also should consider removing the names of universities or previous employers to reduce bias stemming from the halo or horn effect, and only make this information available when the candidate discloses it or when the hiring manager needs to collect references.

Similarly, it’s a good idea to train hiring managers into recognising and challenging biases during the hiring process and empowering them to challenge other hiring managers regardless of where they are in the hierarchy.

You should also make sure that, during the hiring process, you involve people from a diverse range of backgrounds, and with different gender identities, to evaluate the same candidates. This can be a great way to identify any underlying biases in hiring managers and to make sure that new candidates are evaluated fairly.

6. Holding Employees Accountable

Every employee should be empowered to talk to HR if they feel that decisions are being made based on unconscious biases. More often than not, employees might not feel able to challenge managers or senior staff members in the heat of the moment, and they may also not realise they’ve been discriminated against until they’ve had time to evaluate their situation.

With that in mind, it can be helpful to have a feedback process where employees can report instances of discrimination to HR. This should either be anonymous, or the name of the employee should be kept confidential unless they agree otherwise.

Similarly, managers should be held accountable by other managers if they make any official decisions about employees. Unconscious biases can affect employees during pay reviews, performance reviews, or redundancy cycles, so when these kinds of decisions are being made, they should be evaluated by an impartial manager elsewhere in the organisation to make sure a fair decision is being made.

In Summary, as an HR professional, you need to understand how unconscious biases can affect the hiring process, how decisions are made, and how employees interact with their team. With workplace bias directly contributing to stress, mental health issues, burnout, and physical health conditions [8], understanding how unconscious biases affect every aspect of the workplace is key to ensuring your employees are happy, healthy, and productive.

Protect your workplace against unconscious bias, by regularly getting honest and anonymous feedback from your people with Qualee - sign up for our FREE Starter Plan today.


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