4 unconscious bias hotspots at work

Most people have heard about unconscious bias in the workplace but few of them really understand the cost associated with it. According to a 2017 research by Center for Talent Innovation, employees at large companies who perceive bias are nearly three times as likely (20% vs 7%) to be disengaged at work; Gallup estimates that active disengagement costs U.S. companies $450 billion to $550 billion per year. Furthermore, employees who perceive bias are more than three times as likely (31% to 10%) to say that they’re planning to leave their current jobs within the year. Lastly, unconscious bias hinders innovation: employees who perceive bias are 2.6 times more likely (34% to 13%) to say that they’ve withheld ideas and market solutions over the previous six months.

Unconscious biases are attitudes and stereotypes accumulated throughout life that can influence our decision making, particularly when something must be decided quickly. These biases often lead to inaccurate assessments based on faulty rationale. Unconscious biases are typically outside of our awareness and can affect who is selected for an interview, how interviews are conducted and who gets the job. The first step in mitigating hidden bias is to be aware of various types of bias in order to recognize these attitudes and how they are expressed in our behavior. In this article, we will discuss the four most common places where unconscious bias shows up in the workplace.

1. Daily interactions

In our daily interactions at work, we tend to follow the affinity bias. This refers to when we unconsciously prefer people with whom we share similar qualities. It happens because our brain sees them as familiar and relatable, and we simply want to be around people that we can relate to.

If, for example, someone went to the same university or shares similar hobbies, we are more likely to have an affinity for them. However, this can hinder our judgment about which individuals are best for the business and may result in fewer diverse employees, which means less creative views and approaches to work.

The key is to treat people equally. To do so means we have to be aware of our own biases. To find out what type of diversity and inclusion leader you are at work, take this two-minute quiz and learn how you can become more inclusive.

2. Coaching, development and mentoring

False assumptions and stereotypes often impact who gets the glamour work and the stretch assignments and who gets to travel abroad with the boss. Feedback also tends to be delivered in different ways depending on the gender of the person. Gender bias occurs because we favor people that we can relate to, especially those of the same gender. We often connect with them more easily because of shared gender-specific physical and emotional experiences. Researchers at Stanford University point out one reason why women don’t get to the leadership level as much as men: the vague feedback that women tend to receive over their careers; by analysing performance reviews from three large tech companies, the research uncovered some big differences in the feedback given to men versus women. Women were less likely than men to receive specific feedback tied to outcomes; this was true both for praise and constructive feedback; by contrast, men were offered a clearer picture of what they were doing well, how their performance was impacting the business and what they needed to do to get promoted. The study also found other gender differences in performance reviews, specifically in language. When women were praised they were twice as likely to receive feedback on team contributions versus individual accomplishments which could hold them back during performance calibration and promotion discussions. Women were also described as supportive, collaborative, helpful twice as often as men and received 76% of the references of being too aggressive. Men’s reviews include words like drive, transform, innovate, tackle twice as often as women. Gender bias can hinder career coaching, mentoring and development. To find out how to be more inclusive in your meetings, watch my video Boost Inclusion With This Surprising Technique (And Achieve Better Group Decisions).

3. Interviewing and hiring

If you always hire talent from the same places, the same universities, using the same referrals, you will get the same kinds of candidates. If the hiring managers don’t get diverse candidates to interview, it will be difficult to hire diverse candidates. The halo effect often comes into play in the interview process.

The Halo effect is when we focus on one particularly great feature about someone. As a result we view everything about the person in a positive “halo” light, which makes us think that they are “more” perfect than they really are.

Similar to affinity bias, this makes us overlook other information, and it skews our opinion of other aspects of the person, especially negative ones. By diversifying the candidate pool, and being aware of the halo effect, hiring managers can proactively prevent unconscious bias in the interviewing process. To learn how to become a more inclusive leader, read my book: Inclusion: The Ultimate Secret For An Organization’s Success.

4. Performance reviews and appraisals

During performance reviews, you should ask yourself the following questions: are the techniques used to review employees free of bias? What criteria are being used to calibrate performance evaluation? Are performance review metrics skewed to different types of personalities? Are you being intentional with promoting a diverse set of employees? Confirmation bias often comes into play during appraisals, Confirmation bias is when we search for evidence that backs up our own preconceived opinions or stereotypes, rather than looking at the whole picture. This can lead to selective observation, meaning we overlook other information and instead focus on things that fit our viewpoint. It can lead to unfair, inaccurate judgments, overlooked talent, or discrimination. The first step is simple to make the unconscious conscious.

Unconscious bias is still prevalent in most organisations and it can lead to unfair treatment of employees and even discrimination. By introducing greater diversity in the candidates we hire and promote, and by proactively raising awareness about the different types of hidden bias and how they show up in the workplace, organisations can improve the unintended negative effects of unconscious bias. As the research has shown, diversity and inclusion at work leads to better financial results, greater innovation and more satisfied customers so investing in unconscious bias awareness is not a luxury.

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