January 24, 2024

Could unconscious bias be impacting your workplace?

Unconscious bias is a genuine and pervasive issue throughout our workplaces and one that can impact anyone, regardless of their age or gender or the type of work they do. But how much of an issue is it in your workplace? And what can you do about it?

What is unconscious bias?

Before we get too far into discussing how to eliminate unconscious bias, it’s worth exploring what it actually is. 

Unconscious bias refers to the stereotypes or attitudes that impact our decision-making without us even knowing it. 

That said, not all unconscious bias is the same. Generally speaking, it falls into three categories.

 1. Affinity Bias: The comfort of familiar faces

In life, we tend to gravitate towards people who share our interests, background, or even sense of humour. This is affinity bias. 

When it comes to workplaces, affinity bias takes the form of rewarding those who are just like us – whether that’s by promoting them above others or giving them the job in the first place. 

2. Confirmation Bias: The ‘cherry-picking’ trap

Many of us tend to like taking in information that aligns with our worldviews. For instance, we tend to read and watch news that’s consistent with our beliefs rather than that which challenges them. That’s confirmation bias. 

In a business setting, confirmation bias can mean overlooking critical feedback or data simply because it doesn’t fit our narrative because we want to believe something is true.

3. The halo and horn effects: Seeing the world in good and evil

Say someone aces their first project and makes us look good. Suddenly, they can do no wrong in our eyes. Their halo shines brightly, often blinding us to their potential flaws. Conversely, the ‘horn effect’ happens when someone makes one mistake, and suddenly, they’re forever marked. 

These biases are like lenses that distort our view, and in the workplace, they can lead to unfair appraisals or decisions. 

How much of a problem is unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias is a massive issue in many workplaces. If you need convincing, consider this – a striking 89% of recruiters and hiring managers admit to making judgments about applicants within the first 15 minutes of an interview, often influenced by their unconscious biases.

In fact, one US study found that unconscious bias takes effect even before the recruitment process. It revealed that CVs with ‘white-sounding’ names had a higher callback rate of 9.65%, compared to 6.45% for those with ‘black-sounding’ names, indicating some level of unconscious bias towards race.

Another study found that women, particularly in STEM fields, were 45% more likely to be excluded due to bias during the hiring process.

But unconscious bias doesn’t just impact recruitment. It also impacts the likelihood of promotion and bonuses, with research showing that those who share similar backgrounds or characteristics with their supervisors are often more likely to receive promotions and higher bonuses. 

Another study also found there was a ‘motherhood bias’ whereby women with responsibility for children were seen as less competent than their male counterparts who were otherwise undifferentiated. 

Why is unconscious bias an issue?

Unconscious bias can impact everything within an organisation, from talent acquisition to workplace culture. 

Research and expert insights reveal that these biases can lead to overlooking a wide range of talents and perspectives, as decisions are often influenced more by personal comfort and familiarity than by objective assessment of skills and capabilities.

For instance, a Deloitte survey discovered that 39% of employees experience unconscious bias at least once a month in their workplace and that 68% of these biases were reported to have a negative impact on productivity. This shows how deeply ingrained biases can hinder effective decision-making and collaboration, ultimately affecting the company’s bottom line.

The correlation between diversity and financial performance is also well-established. The most gender-diverse companies were found to be 20% more likely than the least diverse to have above-average financial performance. 

So, when biases in hiring, assessing, or promoting employees are left unchecked, they can significantly limit an organisation’s potential 

In addition to these practical impacts, employees who feel subject to bias may experience feelings of exclusion or undervaluation. This can lead to decreased employee satisfaction and engagement, creating a ‘revolving door’ of talent and a stifling of new voices and ideas.

How to avoid unconscious bias in your workplace

Overall, unconscious bias is not just a moral issue but a business necessity that requires active engagement and strategies for mitigation. Here are our six tips for achieving just that. 

1. Awareness and education

Start with training. Educate your team about what unconscious looks like and how it manifests in the workplace. Explain the impact it can have on team and business performance, as well as how to overcome it. 

2. Implement fairer processes

Use structured interviews and standardised performance evaluations to minimise subjective judgments. You could even consider implementing ‘blind’ recruitment processes to focus on candidates’ skills and qualifications without being influenced by their names or backgrounds.

Increasingly, we’re seeing AI being used to attempt to eliminate unconscious bias. For instance, a lot of larger corporations are using apps such as Sapia to take bias out of the hiring process. 

3. Promote diversity and inclusion

By adding diversity to your hiring panels, you can bring different perspectives to recruitment decisions. You could also encourage mentoring programs that focus on pairing employees from different backgrounds and levels rather than on putting together like-minded people. 

4. Encouraging open dialogue

Create channels for regular feedback where employees can discuss their experiences openly. Also, try to make sure all voices are heard in meetings and discussions, not just the loudest voice in the room. 

5. Monitoring and accountability

Conduct regular audits of your HR processes to identify and address any biases in hiring, promotions, or evaluations, and act on what you find. This could include setting up accountability measures where decision-makers are required to justify their choices based on objective criteria.

6. Get leadership buy-in

Make sure the commitment to addressing unconscious bias comes from the top by having leaders actively participate in training and discussions. Also, review your company policies to ensure they support diversity and inclusion and implement changes where necessary.

Want more?

Unconscious bias doesn’t just hold back people; it also holds back organisations. 

If you’d like to know more about identifying and eliminating unconscious biases in your workplace, get in touch.

say hi to our author

Merilyn founded Catalina Consultants in 2012 on the belief that all organisations, regardless of size, should have access to top quality bespoke HR services. She enjoys working closely with her clients and believes that the best results are built on relationships of rapport, trust and authenticity. Growing up, Merilyn had her sight set on stardom and dreamed of becoming an actor. She also sang and played the piano, but ended up studying accounting and HR. Whilst she hasn’t won her Grammy just yet, she still loves a good karaoke night. Merilyn loves to travel with her family, with South Africa being one of her most memorable destinations.

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