How To Overcome Unconscious Bias In The American Workplace
Social diversity in the workplace is not just a "politically correct" hiring practice: having a workforce made up of individuals from different perspectives and backgrounds has tangible benefits for the social and financial health of a company.
Nonetheless, discrimination continues to poison the American workplace: from discriminatory hiring practices to preferential promotion decisions to sexual harassment of certain members of the team -- it is not guaranteed that everyone gets treated fairly and equitably at the workplace.
What makes discrimination particularly tricky to combat is the fact that many of those who discriminate against others do it unintentionally! Read on to learn more about how to overcome unconscious bias in the workplace and how this problematic way of thinking and acting leads to unfair employment practices.
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What Is Unconscious Bias?
Unconscious bias is a tendency to judge -- and treat -- others not on the basis of their individual personality and merit but on the basis of assumptions drawn from general stereotypes. Those stereotypes can be positive or negative -- and determine whether someone is treated unfairly badly or, on the contrary, with undue preferential treatment.
Examples Of Unconscious/Implicit Biases In The Workplace
By definition, unconscious bias is not something a person is conscious of. But it is precisely this un-self-awareness that can keep people in charge of an important decision making process (such as hiring managers or HR leaders) making the same mistakes. Read more on the differences between unconscious and implicit bias. Here are just a few of the predominant unconscious biases that are encountered in the job market.
Race And Ethnicity Bias
This is a common bias against someone on the basis of their skin color, culture, or religion. For example, certain "ethnic" or religious attire and accessories perfectly common in some cultures may be called "inappropriate"; or certain styles of wearing hair may be perceived as "unprofessional". There is nothing wrong with these attributes -- they are not obscene or offensive at work -- but they catch ire because they are different from the dominant mainstream.
Likewise, it is known that "white sounding names" have been historically favored by hiring managers over "ethnic sounding names" that deviate from the Anglo-Saxon naming traditions. A person's name should have no bearing on whether or not they get the job, and yet, it happens a lot -- unconsciously for most.
Interviewers also show extra suspicion toward applicants with pronounced foreign accents or regional dialects, unconsciously confusing imperfect English or English vernacular with lowered intelligence -- and that certainly reflects inequitably on their hiring choices.
Possibly the most widespread implicit (as well as explicit) bias around the world is that women and men are fundamentally different -- often which translates into different treatments and expectations of different genders at the same workplace. For example, women are societally expected to be nurturing which, at the workplace, often means having to pick up slack for male coworkers, or doing extra emotional labor to maintain a peaceful ambience at work.
Women's professional ideas are often unconsciously claimed as their own by their male coworkers or managers who then reap the accolades and promotions that come with those innovations. This phenomenon is so common, it has been dubbed "bro-propriating".
Thanks to unconscious gender biases (and hence, entitlements) disproportionately high numbers of women are also subjected to unwanted sexual attention at their place of work.
Unconscious bias also affects how some coworkers treat those of a different sexual orientation than themselves as well as those who identify as gender fluid or non-binary. Because some individuals unconsciously find these qualities threatening to their own gender identity and sexual orientation, they can react in insensitive and hostile ways to the mere presence of LGBTQ+ employees in their midst -- and avoid hiring more (openly gay and lesbian job seekers are less likely to get a job interview than heterosexual applicants).
Ageism is based on unfavorable default assumptions about older individuals that keep them from getting work they are perfectly qualified for. For example, talented employees over the age of forty often get passed over for jobs because hiring managers automatically think they are unfit for fast-past environments or will not be able to quickly master the constantly evolving digital technology.
Ablism And Body Shaming Bias
Many people, if they are honest with themselves, will admit to feeling uncomfortable talking with a disabled person. This is a problem in general -- and becomes unlawful when hiring managers and employers deny employment opportunities to persons with disabilities just to spare themselves the awkwardness.
Even body weight and height have an unconscious influence on social workplace dynamics. Overweight individuals routinely face the punishing stigma of "laziness", while taller professionals (especially men) have been known to command higher salaries and get promoted into senior roles more frequently than their counterparts of shorter stature.
Another evolutionary survival instinct that persists in the human psyche today is the tendency to like -- and trust -- those who are most similar to ourselves -- not only in looks but also in personal backgrounds, experiences, and interests. At the workplace, these unconscious preferences can manifest as, for example, favoring a less-qualified candidate who happens to be a member of the boss' fraternity, or alienating, mistreating, or not promoting an employee for not showing enough enthusiasm for the superior's hobbies or sense of humor.
Confirmation bias refers to a common tendency to find "proof" confirming our own biases in all situations, even completely circumstantial ones. For example, a manager of an older employee notices them struggling with a task -- and assumes that the problem lies with the employee being too stubborn and "inflexible" to learn a new skill. In reality, the problem is coming from an error made by a different employee -- but the supervisor's implicit bias is preventing them from identifying and fixing it at the source. Instead, they unfairly blame an innocent employee who has no control over the situation.
What Causes Unconscious Bias?
Unconscious bias is part "nature" and part "nurture", in the sense that all humans have a natural propensity towards it -- but it's our culture and socialization that shape the specific biases we develop.
The Natural Factors Of Unconscious Bias
Human brains are wired to take mental shortcuts and draw generalized conclusions on the basis of anecdotal personal experiences. Those reflexes were essential when being hunted by a predator: in the wild, it's vitally safer to assume the worst about someone than to worry about misjudging their character. In modern civil society, however, such primeval reactions do not serve the same useful purposes and instead cause social offense and discord.
The Learned Factors Of Unconscious Bias
Unconscious bias is also learned from the particular cultural context of one's time and place. Humans are easily influenced by peers and are very susceptible to societal stereotypes.
Therefore, the explicit and implicit racism, sexism, ableism, ageism and other unfair negative attitudes expressed in our movies, social media, political discourse and other cultural imagery and conversations -- all influence us on an unconscious level to one degree or another.
Thanks to this unconscious nature of bias, people can explicitly believe in very egalitarian ideals -- but implicitly still hold on to a deeply ingrained prejudice.
Unconscious Bias Is Toxic For Business
While no one is immune to unconscious biases, it's what a person does about it that makes for good or poor leadership at the workplace.
When unconscious bias goes unacknowledged and unchecked, it can: Turn into discriminatory behavior/abuse of power and become offensive and damaging to others.
Sabotage the person's own career or even bring down the entire enterprise -- if they continue with their discriminatory attitudes and practices -- because sooner or later, they will be held accountable for it.
Everyone Can Learn To Overcome Unconscious Biases
Unconscious biases can be thought of as "faulty programming" in our perceptions of the world -- and, as such, can absolutely be reprogrammed into a more considerate way to view and treat others. Acknowledging it as a real problem -- and be willing to change -- is a big first step in the right direction.
Strategies for Eliminating Unconscious Biases From Thoughts And Behaviors
Committing to eliminating unconscious bias-rooted discrimination at the workplace begins with an honest reevaluation of one's own implicit biases -- and moving on to do the same with one's business practices.
"Start With The Man In The Mirror"
How does one become conscious of unconscious mental processes? It starts with sincerely wishing to be fair and respectful with everyone -- and developing a habit of becoming mindful and intentional with one's interactions with others. One must be willing to question one's own motives and be critical toward their own attitudes.
Training oneself to not make snap decisions is a big step in avoiding acting on implicit bias. Taking time to deliberate and articulate why specifically one likes or doesn't like a job candidate -- while being willing to catch and admit one's unconscious prejudices -- will greatly reduce instances of mistreating others.
There are also external ways to check one's implicit biases. For example, one can take the free Implicit Association Test developed by Harvard University scientists to become more aware of one's own biases toward different social groups.
Make Diversity A Top Priority In Hiring Processes And Decisions
To put it bluntly: if the upper hierarchy of a large company is staffed primarily by tall white men, it is a sure sign that its hiring and promotion practices are outdated and biased. Companies benefit from a cooperation of a variety of voices and perspectives. It pays to set serious diversity and inclusion goals for the company -- and to deliberately advertise key positions to diverse candidates.
As a safeguard against implicit bias corrupting company decision making, it helps to determine specific criteria and metrics to be used in the hiring process, where the candidates can be scored on relevant experience, educational credentials, professional accomplishments, etc. in a uniform fashion: this way, finding the right candidate is a straightforward matter of going with the highest score, as opposed to relying on personal taste.
Unconscious Bias Training Is Key!
The best way to reduce and prevent unconscious bias at the workplace is with top-to-bottom education. When people understand that they don't have to accept the guilt for having unconscious bias -- just the responsibility to do their best not to act on it -- they are more willing to commit to adjusting and monitoring their thoughts and behaviors.
Consider EasyLlama's Diversity & Inclusion training for your employees and Leadership training for your supervisors! Its easy, fast, and mobile-friendly e-training course will raise awareness of problematic unconscious stereotyping in hiring and other employment practices -- and offer better, more inclusive solutions: ones that will welcome, embrace, and amplify diverse voices and perspectives at the company, rather than suppress them.
Written by: Maria Malyk