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Interrupting Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

Published Friday Jun 28, 2019

Author Debra Weiss Ford and Kevin M. Sibbernsen

Diverse group of people

While research shows diverse companies are more likely to result in higher employee satisfaction, lower turnover, larger recruiting pools, stronger contacts with consumer markets, and even higher profits than their less-diverse counterparts, that research also demonstrates that a company cannot just increase diversity and wait for those benefits to arrive.

A mission statement touting diversity and inclusion or even an executive driving such initiatives is simply not enough. In order to yield such returns, businesses need to develop a corporate culture encouraging both diversity and inclusion, and educate its employees about identifying and interrupting unconscious bias—the primary impediment to diversity and inclusion initiatives.

What Is Diversity and Inclusion?
Diversity is the measure of different backgrounds, social experiences and characteristics, seen and unseen, within a workforce. It is about the number of employees with different social identities within the organization. Each employee has multiple intersecting identities based on numerous characteristics, such as age, gender, health, socioeconomic background, education, religion, parental status, and countless other life experiences.  

Inclusion, on the other hand, is the process by which a business removes barriers, unites groups, and leverages diversity within the workforce to gain success and a competitive advantage. When combined, diversity and inclusion result in recruiting underrepresented groups and creating an environment that maximizes individual contributions for the benefit of the organization.

What Is Unconscious Bias?
One of the largest barriers to inclusion is unconscious bias—a person’s predisposition in favor of, or against, a person, group or thing. While employees may be aware of their conscious biases and take action to counteract them, their unconscious biases exist outside of their awareness.

Unconscious biases develop over time as the brain creates shortcuts in order to process information and make decisions quickly. They are influenced by an individual’s personal, familial, educational and cultural experiences. Unconscious biases may be more prevalent when a person is multitasking, working under a time constraint, stressed, or making a subjective determination.

In order to facilitate both diversity and inclusion within a business, it is important that all employees learn how to identify and interrupt unconscious bias. The initial step is to identify it. While there are myriad unconscious biases, these are some common types:

Objectivity Bias: This is when an individual favors his or her own thoughts and actions, believing their actions are objectively reasonable, despite evidence to the contrary. To foster inclusion, it is important for employees to recognize and understand that objectivity bias exists and that all individuals have unconscious biases.

Affinity Bias: This occurs when an individual favors someone because of a similar background, appearance, shared interests, or other common characteristics. Affinity bias can pose a barrier to creating an inclusive workplace. For example, a recruiter may favor candidates from their alma mater. Team leaders may have a tendency to select members who remind them of themselves or family members. When similar individuals favor one another for purposes of recruiting, hiring, training, promoting, mentoring, and team assignments, they reduce diversity within the group.

Anchoring Bias: This is the tendency to overvalue the first piece of information available (the “anchor”) when making subsequent decisions, even if that first piece of information is later contradicted. For example, an individual might develop expectations about a coworker based on the first thing he learned about her rather than her words, actions or behaviors.

This first piece of information could be firsthand observations (such as skin color, fashion style, gender or physical fitness) or secondhand information (such as reputation, job title or education). While first impressions matter, it is imperative that employers look beyond initial observations and consider all relevant information available when making decisions.

Attribution Bias: This occurs when an individual considers the actions of an individual or a group to be an inherent characteristic as opposed to the underlying circumstances. A manager with this tendency may, for example, attribute an employee’s commitment to a project to whether they have children instead of evaluating their other work-related assignments. Similarly, an individual with this tendency may attribute an employee’s proficiency with new technology to the employee’s age, instead of actual experience.  

Availability Bias: In this case, a person favors information that is more readily “available” because it is more recent, personally observed, or more memorable. For example, managers may provide new work opportunities to their “go-to” employee without considering others because of a prior work history. Inclusion means considering all qualified employees for opportunities to grow and develop skills.

Bandwagon Bias: Bandwagon bias is the tendency to conform to the actions or beliefs of a group without examining the underlying circumstances. This form of bias is particularly harmful to innovation, creativity and problem solving in the workplace.

Confirmation Bias: This tendency places a premium on details that support a pre-existing opinion while minimizing details to the contrary. For example, an employee with a reputation of unreliability may have difficulty overcoming that reputation because minor mistakes may reinforce the reputation, and even significant performance successes may be disregarded as an anomaly.

Halo Bias: Halo bias is when an individual has a positive previously held belief about one aspect of a person, group or thing, they may assume that other unrelated aspects are also positive. For example, an employee who is a strong individual contributor may be assumed to be a strong leader despite the absence of information to support that assumption.

Interrupting Unconscious Biases
If left unchecked, these unconscious biases interfere with creating a diverse and inclusive workplace. The first step in overcoming bias in the workplace is to make everyone aware that they are subject to various biases, and then train them to identify and overcome them.

Additionally, businesses can implement processes that interrupt unconscious biases. In the recruitment and hiring process, businesses can:

•    Review job descriptions to identify only essential criteria. Extraneous or un-essential criteria may deter diverse candidates from applying.

•    Review recruitment efforts to ensure that they reach a diverse candidate pool.  

•    Establish an internal team to work with the hiring committee to broaden the candidate pool.  Encourage diverse employees to use their own networks for recruitment.

•    Ensure that recruiters (and all others involved in the recruitment process) are trained to recognize and interrupt unconscious biases.  

• Conduct blind resume reviews where each candidate’s personal information is removed.

•    Establish diverse panels to interview candidates.

•    Establish objective interview criteria to ensure that candidates are evaluated consistently.

•    Create an environment where all participants in the recruitment and hiring process are comfortable discussing and interrupting potential bias.

Additionally, businesses can implement numerous methods to interrupt unconscious bias in day-to-day operations. For example, a business might:

•    Establish a formal work assignment process to ensure that all employees receive opportunities for professional growth.

•    Establish a formal mentorship program for all employees.

•    Establish an anonymous, third-party hotline for employee complaints.

•    Establish a formal performance review procedure with objective measures.

•    Encourage positive images of all people.

•    Encourage employees to self-identify with a range of categories.  

•    Review promotion criteria to identify essential criteria only.

•    Consider including a demonstrated competency in diversity and inclusion as a criterion for promotion.

•    Establish a formal process to identify all employees eligible for promotion.

•    Establish a diverse panel to interview and evaluate candidates for promotion. (This group could be separate from the group who determined the employees eligible for promotion.)

•    Establish objective interview criteria to ensure that promotion candidates are evaluated consistently.

•    Create an environment where all participants in the promotion process are comfortable discussing and interrupting potential unconscious bias.

Finally, businesses should remember that unconscious bias is more prevalent in stressful circumstances and when making subjective determinations. To mitigate the risk of bias, businesses can insert additional layers of review, ensure that decision-makers are aware of unconscious biases, and give decision-makers the time needed to obtain relevant information.

Debra Weiss Ford, managing principal and litigation manager of Jackson Lewis in Portsmouth, will be presenting at the 2019 Granite State HR Conference. Kevin M. Sibbernsen is a principal at Jackson Lewis. For more information, visit jackson

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