We are influenced by so many different things in our life: our family, our culture, our community, our past experiences, and our beliefs. We make decisions based on all of these influences and others. Our brain handles a huge amount of information and in order to manage all this information, our brain often takes shortcuts. For example, when the alarm clock goes off in the morning, a person does not think through every movement that it takes to turn off the alarm clock, they just turn it off and wonder how much longer they can stay in bed. Unconscious bias is similar: it occurs when our brain is making these quick judgments without us realizing they occur.
Whether one believes it or not, we all have unconscious biases and often, the term has negative connotations. The idea of ‘having a bias’ is heavily associated with words like prejudice, discrimination, and stereotype, and this makes it seem like a bad thing. This comes as no surprise, considering bias is a “tendency or inclination, particularly one that prevents unprejudiced consideration of a question.”
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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 eliminating them. We can, however, address the effects of unconscious bias so it isn't impeding the organization’s goal to create a balanced, diverse, and inclusive workforce. As with anything in life—a person can only do better when they 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.
There are many different types of unconscious bias that occur in the workplace outside of race and gender. Just a few to also be aware of are:
- Affinity Bias – This is where we prefer individuals that share similar qualities or is like someone in our lives. People tend to “click” with others that they have things in common with and therefore may lean toward hiring based on our similar qualities. Examples may be growing up in the same town or area, enjoying the same type of things, or even if the applicant has a physical resemblance to someone we are close to.
- Attribution Bias – This is how the manager views their own actions versus how they perceive those of others. This is kind of a reverse effect. We tend to attribute our successes to positive internal personal traits like hard work and determination, and others’ success to neutral or external personal traits like luck or privilege. If we have not succeeded in a particular area, we could also tend to discredit an applicant’s achievements in that area.
- Beauty Bias – This is where we associate a person’s appearance with their skills and personality. The first thing we see is someone’s physical appearance and we subconsciously make a judgment based on their looks and not what they have to offer.
- Conformity Bias – This is when we allow others to influence our opinion. When making decisions, people often don’t want to disrupt another person’s perception, therefore they go with what others believe.
- Confirmation Bias – This is when a person looks for ways to confirm their opinions. The interviewer may see a specific degree as not useful and during the interview try to discredit the applicant’s degree by asking questions that serve to confirm the interviewer’s opinion.
- Contrast Effect – This is when a person looks at more than one thing and compares it to the others within a sequence. This can occur in the application process, when the hiring manager compares applications to each other and not an objective standard. Then, applicants are removed from consideration not based on their attributes but how they are seen in comparison to others.
- Halo effect – This is where one focuses on one positive attribute of the individual to the exclusion of anything else. If an applicant graduated from a school that the hiring manager feels was prestigious then they feel like the applicant is perfect for the position based on where they attended school, not their skills.
- Horns Effect – This is where one focuses on one negative attribute of the individual to the exclusion of anything else. An example may be an applicant was nervous and bounced their leg most of the interview. Instead of focusing on their skills and answers, the hiring manager focused on the fact that they moved their leg the entire time.
Unconscious bias is sometimes difficult to overcome but the first step is to become aware of them. Here are a few pointers to get started:
- Encourage the discussion of biases. Self-awareness is the first step and it is key. We need to own up to having biases, before we can address them.
- Be aware of the impact these biases may have on decision-making and various processes within the organization. Paint the picture of the effect the unconscious biases can have, and how they can potentially impede progress towards goals the organization has established.
- Survey employees on their experiences with unconscious biases, or hidden barriers that may exist within the organization. Tailor training and intervention based on the 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 the company is a federal contractor, leverage affirmative action compliance to monitor personnel decisions to ensure systemic discrimination is not occurring.
And remember, biases are not necessarily bad. It’s what we do with them that can present unintentional and undesirable consequences.
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