TABLE OF CONTENTS
Bias describes a prejudice or inclination for or against a person, group, or thing versus another.
“Some biases are positive and helpful—like choosing to only eat foods that are considered healthy or staying away from someone who has knowingly caused harm,” Psychology Today explains.¹
“But biases are often based on stereotypes, rather than actual knowledge of an individual or circumstance.” Whether they are favorable or unfavorable, “biases can result in prejudgments that lead to rash decisions or discriminatory practices.”
When bias occurs in business organizations—and it frequently does—the negative consequences can be particularly damaging. So establishing respectful workplaces where bias and discrimination have no place are critical goals for business and human resources leaders.
Bias in Workplaces
When Deloitte surveyed employees about bias at work, they found that:
encounter bias at least once a month
say that bias at work is subtle or indirect
say that experiencing or witnessing bias negatively affects their productivity
In the workplace, bias can cause a wide range of problems, making it an important issue to understand and address. The non-profit Center for Talent Innovation (CIT) researched² the effects of bias in large organizations and found that employees who perceive bias at work (versus those who haven’t) are:
- 3 times more likely to be disengaged
- 3 times more likely to leave their jobs
- 2.6 times more likely to withhold solutions or ideas
- 5 times more likely to communicate negatively about their employer on social media
Further, employees who experience bias or witness it at work may suffer significant and potentially long-lasting emotional harm, financial fallout, damage to personal and work relationships, and career harm.
The research by CIT and others confirms that organizations in which bias is unchecked are likely to experience reduced talent retention, damage to innovation, lower productivity, and bottom-line hits caused by employee disengagement ($450 to $550 billion yearly costs to U.S. companies, according to Gallup).³
In addition, bias in the workplace harms organizational cultures, impedes companies’ abilities to recruit top talent, reduces morale, negatively impacts diversity and inclusion initiatives, and erodes employer brands.
Overall, there are two general types of bias:
- Explicit, or conscious, bias happens when an individual makes a deliberate decision to act in a prejudiced manner toward a group or an individual. For example, choosing to work only with others in the same age group and purposely excluding colleagues who are older or younger can signal age bias in the workplace. Similarly, males who knowingly opt only to work with other men and exclude female colleagues (or vice versa) illustrate gender bias in their choices.
- Implicit bias, often called unconscious bias, occurs without awareness or intent. Often based on incomplete or inaccurate information—attributable to life experiences, values, and other factors—unconscious bias may appear in thoughtless or offensive comments or actions. At work, unconscious bias could be responsible for a hiring manager’s choosing one candidate over another because the manager and the new hire share the same race, culture, or educational background. The difference is that the individual exhibiting the bias doesn’t realize he or she is doing so.
Unconscious bias occurs simply because human brains are wired for it. For ancient ancestors, it was a form of protection that evolved to help them recognize safe and unsafe people and situations. While it is no longer needed for that purpose, implicit bias remains so pervasive that a still-cited 1998 landmark study reported that it occurs in 90 – 95% of people.⁴
Experts say that unconscious, or implicit, bias can be seen in many human interactions. A few of the most common examples (and how they might reveal themselves and be addressed in the workplace) include:
- Affinity bias is based on individuals’ tendencies to gravitate toward others who are like them, who share similar characteristics, such as gender, age, race, or culture.
At work: Affinity bias is a particular risk during the hiring process if interviewers favor candidates who reflect their own traits. Ensuring a diverse slate of job candidates can help companies guard against affinity bias.
- Age bias occurs when individuals are discriminated against because of their age. While this most often happens to older individuals, and tends to happen more to women, it can be experienced by people of any age.
At work: Age bias may be seen in the talent acquisition process during candidate interviews and hiring choices. But age bias may hamper existing employees, as well, when workers are being considered for advancement or special assignments and age becomes an implicit factor in decision-making. Audits for bias in hiring and internal talent mobility can help identify and address ageism in the workplace.
- Confirmation bias describes an individual’s tendency to seek confirmation of their own preconceived ideas. This prejudice can cause poor decision-making when a person interprets information or perceives someone incorrectly, but in a way that aligns with his or her own thinking.
At work: In an organization, a leader who perceives one business strategy more favorably than another because of confirmation bias may inadvertently decide to invest employees and resources into developing an unprofitable product simply because the choice is consistent with his/her own thinking. For this reason, leadership development content should include instruction in recognizing and countering unconscious bias in all of its potential forms.
- Conformity bias occurs when an individual is influenced unduly by the opinions of others. In group settings and, given the popularity of crowdsourcing, conformity bias can sway individuals to adjust their own thinking simply to fit in or go along with the majority.
At work: In the workplace, team members and leaders, or others working in a group setting, may succumb to conformity bias. Awareness training and team norms that encourage innovative/individual thought and expression can help offset the risk of being swayed to groupthink.
- Halo/Horn Effect describes opposite types of bias in an individual’s perception of others. Somewhat based on first impressions, the halo effect occurs when the positive way in which a person is perceived influences how he/she is viewed overall. The opposite situation occurs with the horn effect when an initial negative perception of a person creates an unconscious negative view of the individual’s character or abilities.
At work: Immediate positive or negative impressions of a job applicant can result in an interviewer’s forming a positive or negative unconscious bias. In turn, that can result in hiring a less-qualified applicant because of a prejudiced positive impression, or failure to hire the best candidate because of a prejudiced negative impression. Auditing the hiring process can reveal the influence of unconscious biases, while awareness training can teach interviewers to recognize and stop biased behaviors.
- Attribution bias happens when someone judges an individual’s character on the basis of observed behaviors or actions, failing to take situational circumstances into account. A common example involves drawing conclusions about the character of a driver who cuts others off in traffic. While the tendency might be to assume the person is rude or reckless, the reality may be that the driver is rushing an injured loved one to emergency medical treatment.
At work: Attribution bias in the workplace often happens more frequently to female employees. For example, a manager might attribute a female employee’s mistake to a lack of competence, without an exploration of the circumstances surrounding the error. This assumption could then lead the manager to pay undue attention to future mistakes and minimize the employee’s achievements. Training managers to focus on and reinforce workers’ strengths helps overcome attribution bias. Poor performance can’t be ignored, but neither should it receive greatest emphasis.
Other types of unconscious bias often encountered in the workplace may be based on gender, weight, physical attractiveness, height, names (especially those that sound foreign), or other factors. The results can harm individuals and organizations, alike, and underscore the importance of training designed to heighten bias recognition and elimination.
Because the very essence of unconscious bias is lack of recognition that it is happening, instances of it can, and do, occur anywhere. Consequently, there is no single way to recognize unconscious bias, but awareness is a critical starting point, especially on the job.
A Forbes article⁵ observes that unconscious bias effects “are perhaps most felt in the workplace, where, despite organizations increasingly advocating for greater equality and respect for all employees, social categorizations such as age, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, socio-economic status and physical disability continue to impact hiring and employee promotions.”
Actions to mitigate unconscious bias are most effective when organizations establish and maintain cultures of respect, atmospheres in which everyone is valued and treated in a positive and affirming manner. Other key success strategies that companies apply include:
- Providing enterprise-wide unconscious bias training for leaders, managers, and employees
- Implementing and fully supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives
- Encouraging employees to be upstanders (versus bystanders) who watch out for one another and take appropriate action when they witness bias or discrimination at work
- Establishing business or employee resource groups (BRGs/ERGs) to promote visibility and inclusion of underrepresented workers
- Utilizing employee surveys, focus groups, and other means to solicit feedback on organizational culture and assess effectiveness in creating inclusive and diverse workplaces
- Auditing talent practices for the presence of unconscious bias—including talent acquisition, hiring, internal mobility/advancement, succession planning, employee experience, and other functions in which bias may be most likely to occur
It is important that immediate action is taken any time unconscious bias is identified. Organizations can only create respectful and inclusive cultures (and bias-free workplaces) by holding everyone accountable for respectful behavior.
Business organizations offer (or require) unconscious bias training for their leaders, managers, and employees in an effort to heighten awareness that such biases exist and to teach people how to change their behavior in ways that lessen the impact of those biases on decision-making and interactions with others.
There is some disagreement that unconscious bias training is as effective as it might be. Leadership scholar and professor Susan Madsen cites growth in skepticism about its value and estimates⁶ that “only 20% to 25% “ of training “is moving the needle” on unconscious bias. However, she affirms the importance of unconscious bias training for all employees and points to “carefully and strategically designed” training as the standard for success.
Underscoring the urgency of choosing well-designed unconscious bias training is a study reported in Harvard Business Review⁷ that found 87% of 500 surveyed employees reporting that their employers’ training provided little more than scientific explanations of bias and organizational costs of discrimination. Further, only 10% of training programs left participants with actual strategies to help reduce bias.
Don’t leave your bias training to chance. Unintentional Still Hurts: Overcoming Unconscious Bias, the top-selling eLearning course from Media Partners, illustrates the power of an expertly designed course, incorporating such key elements as:
- Engaging, inspiring stories and real-world workplace scenarios crafted to drive behavior change
- Instruction in identifying multiple types of bias and recognizing instances in work settings
- Strategies for challenging assumptions and judgements, and instruction on allyship
- An easily recalled and applied 4-step process for identifying and addressing unconscious bias
- Flexible delivery options that fit all work settings and enable a self-paced approach to fit demanding schedules and varied learning preferences
- Optional expert facilitation to encourage constructive interactions and support culture change
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Finally, it is important to understand that training is a critical component in long-term change, but not the only necessary element. When behavior-changing unconscious bias training is paired with an ongoing commitment to changing organizational processes and practices that unwittingly support bias, then true transformation can occur, lessening the likelihood that unconscious bias and discrimination will continue to plague workplaces in the future.