The Impact of Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

We often go day to day without realizing how our life experiences shape the decisions we make, big or small. This has a particularly profound impact on the workplace and hiring. Why doesn’t your company have any differently-abled employees? Is there a reason everyone on your team looks the same or has similar backgrounds? These could be the result of unconscious biases.

What is unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias, otherwise known as implicit bias, refers to the correlations we make between characteristics and social categories such as race, gender or disability. These judgements are made without conscious awareness and conditioned by lifestyle and upbringing over the course of one’s life.

There are several types of biases that can impact your choices within a workplace environment specifically including:

  • Gender bias – preference towards one gender over another for specific roles (i.e. women are nurturers fit to be nurses, but men are leaders fit to be doctors).
  • Affinity bias – an unconscious preference towards people who share qualities or viewpoints with us or with someone close to us. This can otherwise be known as what can be the innate drive to surround ourselves with “yes men” and create an echo chamber.
  • Halo effect – viewing one particularly strong positive trait about someone in a way that overpowers our judgement of them and can skew our ability to see any of their negative traits. For example, having experience at a prestigious past job clouding our ability to see that they may not be the best fit for your current team.
  • Horns Effect – focusing on one badly perceived trait that can cloud judgement of the positive ones.
  • Beauty bias – a social behaviour that often works at an advantage or disadvantage to many individuals. For example, traditionally attractive applicants are more likely to be hired.
  • Confirmation bias – selectively seeking information to back up an opinion that is already held without looking at the bigger picture. This could be reflected by citing biased sources while researching in order to support a one sided argument.

It is no surprise that the key to success within any business is found through diversity of thought. The ability to have every perspective covered and kept in mind when developing products, hosting events, or creating content. However, our unconscious need to be surrounded by like individuals can challenge and often override our ability to create these conditions.

During the hiring and promotion process in particular, it is much easier to overlook the performance of those we know, like, or that feel familiar to us. Therefore, the people we choose may not be in the best interest of the company, but more so in the best interest of ourselves. This is done unknowingly and does not necessarily come from a space of spite.

One of the most common examples of this can be seen when applicants “white-wash” their resumes. Removing all traces of their culture or ethnicity from their experience, even down to their names. And why wouldn’t they? It has been proven that minorities who “whiten” their resumes get more interviews. Many operate under the pretense that if they cannot at least get in the door to show hiring managers that they are the best person for the job, then their application goes to waste.

“Companies are more than twice as likely to call minority applicants for interviews if they submit whitened resumes than candidates who reveal their race—and this discriminatory practice is just as strong for businesses that claim to value diversity as those that don’t.” (Gerdeman, 2017)

In a study conducted by professors at the University of Toronto and Stanford University, researchers created resumes for Black and Asian applicants and sent them out for 1,600 entry-level jobs posted on popular job search websites in 16 major cities in the United States. Some of the resumes included information that clearly pointed out the applicants’ minority status including ethnic names and experience at ethnically driven organizations (i.e. Black community non-profits), while others were whitened and scrubbed of any racial identity.

25% percent of Black candidates received calls from their whitened resumes, while only 10% received calls when they left ethnic details present. 21% of Asian applicants received calls for their whitened resumes, while only 11.5% heard back on resumes with racial references.

If you were down and out in your quest for gainful employment, this would seem reason enough to whiten your identity just to get a fair chance.

This result could be a result of a hiring manager who has an unconscious bias towards hiring a certain type of person, and therefore does not look as intently at applications that appear to be the opposite. It is important for your company to prioritize breaking these habits within all employees, but especially within your pool of hiring managers. They have a direct impact on the people who bring life to your company, and managers should advertise and hire on the qualities and characteristics required for the job and be aware of how easily biases can arise.

Unconscious biases can only be challenged and ultimately broken when they are addressed. We encourage you to take advantage of the several online training and resources like this one from Hone with your team to face your company wide biases head on.

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