Practical Solutions for Overcoming Unconscious Bias at Work

Our brains are bombarded with information from the world around us. To make sense of everything we p...

Posted by Beth Conner on June 15 2022
Beth Conner

Our brains are bombarded with information from the world around us. To make sense of everything we perceive, our brains take “shortcuts” based on what we know — even if those shortcuts aren’t always accurate. That’s where unconscious bias comes from: making assumptions about groups of people that aren’t true. Although we all have them, overcoming unconscious biases at work is an essential part of your diversity and inclusion strategy.

Conscious inclusion is a mindset shift that helps us be more intentional about what we perceive, mitigating the effects of unconscious bias.

“There are so many ways for organizations to shape the way we deliver conscious inclusion,” Elaine Orler, managing director of consulting at Cielo, said in a webinar co-hosted by Manoj Tiwari, vice president of information solutions at EMP Trust HR. “It’s important that we take proactive steps to protect the broader decision from our short-term or ‘fast brain’ thinking.” 

Here’s how to identify and overcome unconscious bias at work.

What Is Unconscious Bias at Work?

The difference between conscious and unconscious bias in the workplace is that unconscious bias occurs without us being aware of it.

Unconscious biases become a problem when they influence our decisions during hiring, promoting and recruitment processes. “When we’re not really addressing what the situation or conversation is,” Orler said, “we can tend to fall back on what is familiar.” 

In many cases, what’s familiar are the biases we hold, which we use to make decisions without even realizing it. A male hiring manager, for example, may display gender bias when unconsciously placing emphasis on a female candidate’s non-job-related factors, such as demeanor, appearance or tone of voice.

5 Types of Unconscious Bias at Work

Not all biases operate the same way. If we want to embrace conscious inclusion, it’s important to understand how biases affect our thought processes.

Here are five types of bias and how they may impact your hiring decisions.

Affinity Bias 

Affinity bias refers to our unconscious preference for individuals who share similar qualities with us. People tend to “click” with others who share common interests or experiences and may lean toward hiring those people — even if the qualities that attract them have no bearing on job performance.

Attribution Bias 

Attrition bias refers to the assumptions we make based on our own experiences rather than the facts presented to us. If we haven’t succeeded in a particular area, for example, we may be more inclined to discredit an applicant’s achievements in that same area.

Conformity Bias 

Conformity bias occurs when we allow others to influence our opinion. When a single person disagrees with the rest of the group, we tend to second-guess ourselves and go along with what the majority decides. If one member of a search committee has reservations about a hiring decision, for instance, but no one else raises the same concern, that member is much more likely to conform to the majority decision.

Confirmation Bias 

Confirmation bias occurs when a person looks for ways to confirm his or her opinions. An interviewer may perceive a specific degree as not useful, for example, and try to discredit the applicant’s degree during the interview by asking leading questions that are likely to confirm the interviewer’s opinion.

The Horns and Halo Effect

The horns and halo effect refers to a tight focus on a negative or positive attribute to the exclusion of all other information. If a candidate fidgets during the interview, for instance, the interviewer may unconsciously write off that person because of that one behavior, regardless of the candidate’s qualifications. Or, if an applicant graduated from a school the hiring manager feels was prestigious, the manager may feel like the applicant is perfect for the position based on that background and not because of his or her skills.

How to Overcome Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

The term “unconscious bias” has a negative connotation: People don’t want to admit their own biases, and that can prevent productive conversations and actions from occurring. 

But leaning into conscious inclusion is much more positive and invites employees to be part of something good. Conscious inclusion is a mindset shift that helps us pay attention to our through processes to discover and check our biases before they impact our decisions.

“Conscious inclusion brings our mind forward,” Orler said. When team members stop and think about what the situation is really about — in this case, a candidate’s ability to perform the job well — it’s easier to address it more thoughtfully and intentionally.

Here are some practical solutions for building conscious inclusion into your work environment.

Write Inclusive Job Postings

Writing inclusive job postings invites more diverse candidates to apply. “Our words matter,” Orler said. “There are certain words that are problematic, and there are certain words that are inclusionary.”

Some words signal different things to different audiences and can exclude candidates based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or ability, among other factors. The word “strong,” for example, can feel exclusionary to some groups. Use tools to flag potentially exclusionary language.

“When you publish them in your job descriptions…you’re basically disinviting those candidates from applying,” Orler said. 

Focus on What Matters

To avoid bias, it’s important to focus on work experience, skills and values that actually impact the work — not arbitrary factors like the candidates’ names, where they’ve attended school or whether they’ve been continuously employed. “If we hide the information that is irrelevant to the decision — like first and last name — if we hide it from the decision process at resume review, we’re focusing our minds on what’s relevant and important,” Orler said.

Removing that information takes it away from consideration, helping recruiters and hiring managers stay focused on factors that impact job performance. Many applicant tracking systems are equipped with a feature for redacting resumes before sharing them, especially when sharing with hiring managers.

Identify Problem Areas

Before you can set goals to lean into inclusion, you need to determine your baseline. That starts with collecting and analyzing your data. To spur action, you need to demonstrate proof that there’s a problem.

 “If you cannot do anything else, start with your applicant data and do diversity pipeline analysis,” Tiwari said. In many cases, the pipeline isn’t the main problem. It’s where diverse candidates are being screened out that signals unconscious bias in effect. 

Conduct a diversity pipeline analysis to see where that might be happening in your hiring process. 

Reviewing the data helps you identify trends about where diverse candidates drop off: “Is there a pattern of drop-offs?” Tiwari said. “Is there a pattern of bias in certain recruiters’ areas or regions, or is it at the hiring manager’s level?”

Once you become more comfortable with the general data analysis process, begin analyzing the data at the decision-maker level. “That’s where you will start finding there are issues,” Tiwari said.

Take Action Based on the Data

Your data reveals where unconscious bias is at play in your hiring process, but it also empowers you to mitigate the effects of implicit bias and drive conscious inclusion. “Once you know what’s happening, you’ll be able to make a better decision [to address it],” Tiwari said.

Observe trends over time, Tiwari said, such as over the course of a year. Then, based on your analysis of the data, set some realistic goals for improving conscious inclusion. But don’t just focus on the people making decisions: Consider how unconscious biases are built into our processes or may be the result of breakdowns in training.

Individual training and continuous monitoring are crucial to achieving your diversity goals: “If you want to make a change, that is where you start,” Tiwari said. Observe trends in factors, like prompts in your ATS, that may enable biases instead of interrupting them.

Lean into Conscious Inclusion

Although we’ll never completely eliminate bias in the workplace, we can take steps to overcome unconscious bias at work before it impacts our decisions.

Understanding how biases work, combined with upgrading your hiring practices to interrupt bias, can help you become more thoughtful and intentional about talent decisions. Making a conscious effort slow down and be more inclusive can lead to HR process improvements that support diversity, equity and inclusion across your organization.

Beth Conner
Beth Conner
Beth Conner, HR Consultant, has over 15 years of experience as an HR Generalist, focused the past 7 years in Affirmative Action.

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