Unconscious Biases and Workplace Discrimination

Posted by Berkshire Associates on May 27 2013

diversity and inclusionWhether one believes it or not, we all have unconscious biases. Often times, the term has shameful connotations. Being heavily associated with words like prejudice, discrimination, and stereotype, makes the very idea of ‘having a bias’ seem like a bad thing. This comes as no surprise, considering by definition bias is a “tendency or inclination, particularly one that prevents unprejudiced consideration of a question.”

Sometimes in the discussion of diversity and inclusion, biases are seen as taboo. But that’s not always the case. Biases, whether conscious or unconscious, are shaped by our experiences, culture, and lifestyles. One could say those biases are simply an extension of our diversity as individuals. Naturally, our biases affect not only our worldview, but also our decision making—sometimes without us even knowing.

As HR professionals and diversity practitioners within our respective organizations, it’s not our role to play the “blame game” as it relates to unconscious biases, and we should refrain from the unachievable task of completely eliminating them. We can, however, address those biases so they are not impeding on the organization’s goal to create a balanced, diverse, and inclusive workforce. As with anything in life—you can only do better when you know better.

There have been an overwhelming number of studies that have shown the significant impact unconscious biases can have on human capital processes, and potentially lead to forms of institutional discrimination. Here are some examples:

The Chicago Résumé Study

Their experiment involved responding to 1,300 want ads for sales, customer service, and administrative support positions. The identical résumés were assigned “African American sounding names,” like Lakisha and Jamal or “very White sounding names,” like Brendan or Emily. The study showed those résumés with white names elicited 50 percent more callbacks than those with African American names. The study also measured the effect of the quality of résumés, including more observable skills and credentials, would have on the rate of callbacks for each race. For Whites, the higher quality résumés received 30 percent more callbacks. There was no significant difference in callbacks for African Americans. In other words, African Americans benefitted little or none at all from improving the quality of their résumés and credentials. The experiment concluded that federal contractors with obligations to affirmative action compliance and organizations who brand themselves as Equal Opportunity Employers discriminated just as much as other employers.

Applicant Pool Composition and Unconscious Biases

A study was conducted that measured the impact situational factors, like an applicant pool, had on selection decisions influenced by unconscious bias. In this study, 100 men and women were asked to evaluate one female applicant alongside several other applicants. The researchers alternated the proportion of other female job applicants in the pool, ranging from 12.5 percent to 100 percent. Researchers found when females made up less than 25 percent of the applicant pool, the female candidate being evaluated was less likely to be recommended for hire. The study also concluded that stereotypical terms, without regard for the candidate’s qualifications or academic background, were more likely used to rate the female candidate when the female applicant pool was less than 25 percent.

The digital age presents even more implications as it relates to addressing unconscious biases. As recruiters begin to use social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn to source candidates, information that would typically be protected is now easily available. Pictures, political affiliations, parental status, religion, and social activities are all areas of a candidate’s life that a recruiter or hiring manager typically wouldn’t know from a traditional résumé. However, Google and social networks provide effortless access to all that, and more. To further analyze the growing trend of using social media as a recruitment tool, Berkshire Associates developed this white paper:

The Impact of Social Media on Targeted Outreach.

Download FREE White Paper  Now!

CareerBuilder conducted a study that showed 34 percent of hiring managers use social networks to find reasons not to hire a candidate. Most of those reasons were associated with provocative comments, photos, posts, or information related to the candidate drinking or using drugs. Although all are seemingly reasonable ways to pass personal judgment on an individual’s character, there is a high-level of bias and subjectivity involved in making those decisions—both of which have ethical and legal implications. This does not mean social media shouldn’t be used to enhance recruitment efforts; rather organizations should work to implement strategies to effectively address the biases that may pervade these processes as well.

 Here’s a start: 

  • Encourage the discussion of biases. Self-awareness is the first step and it’s key. We need to own up to having them, before we can address them.
  • Be aware of the impact these biases may have on decision-making and various processes within your organization. Paint the picture of the effect the unconscious biases can have, and how they can potentially impede progress towards goals your organization has established.
  • Survey your employees on their experiences with unconscious biases, or hidden barriers that may exist (without you even knowing) within your organization. Tailor training and intervention based on your findings.
  • Implement policies and practices that ensure those biases aren’t impeding on strides towards an inclusive workplace.
  • Develop a policy that makes it clear social media recruitment will not replace the traditional structured recruitment process. Hiring managers should not use sites to assess candidates.
  • If you’re a federal contractor, leverage affirmative action compliance to monitor personnel decisions to ensure systemic discrimination is not occurring.

And remember, biases aren’t bad. It’s what we do with them that can present unintentional and undesirable consequences.

Affirmative Action Plan

For more information, please contact a Berkshire Associates’ diversity expert at 800.882.8904 or email bai@berkshireassociates.com.

Tags: Recruitment Process, Affirmative Action, Diversity, Workforce Balance, Sex Discrimination