How to avoid unconscious bias

For decades, studies have shown that a diverse workforce measurably improves decision-making, problem-solving, creativity, innovation, and flexibility.

However, multiple studies have also shown that people from ethnic minority backgrounds are less likely to be interviewed or offered jobs than equally-qualified applicants from non-minority backgrounds.

The issue that keeps tripping us up and sabotaging sound workplace decision-making is unconscious bias.

In this chapter, we’ll examine why unconscious bias prevents the best people for the job from getting hired, and what you can do to prevent it from derailing your recruitment process.

What are unconscious biases?

Put simply, unconscious biases are our inadvertent preferences for particular types of people.

Social psychologists argue we all have social filters through which we make assessments and judgements about the people around us. Our first impressions of other people are coloured by our personal experiences, representations of different groups in the media, and our socialisation as we grow up.

Using visual and language cues, we unconsciously categorise people according to their gender, age, height, body size, ethnicity, social background, job roles, religious identity or political affiliation. Unconsciously, the brain uses these associations based on social categories to develop biases.

For instance, if we’ve grown up always seeing electricians and managers as men, and primary-school teachers and receptionists as women, these associations become wired in our brains.

These associations then mark-off people as either different from us, or similar to us, and lead to unconscious judgements about them.

How unconscious biases trip-up workplace decision-making

One very common unconscious bias is affinity bias, and it impacts directly on workplace decisions.

Studies have shown that we treat people with whom we have an affinity very differently to people where we don’t see the same likeness.

If we share an unconscious affinity with a staff member, we’re more likely to give them important tasks, and to judge their performance more favourably. Studies have also shown that affinity bias leads us to recruit people who look similar to us or who have similar sounding names.

Affinity bias can lead to positive micro-behaviours. For example, in a staff meeting you’re more likely to support the ideas of people with whom you have an unconscious affinity. You’re also more likely to seek out their company, for example, by inviting them for a coffee.

However, if you share little unconscious affinity with a staff member, watch out. Studies have shown that we’re more likely to question their past performance, and that these conversations tend to be less friendly, even hostile. Negative micro-behaviours include cutting people off in meetings, and checking your phone while chatting to someone.

The effects of unconscious bias

The effects of unconscious bias are particularly harmful to Millennials who value broad participation and how successfully their workplace supports their active involvement. The detrimental effects of unconscious bias in the workplace can reduce the performance and productivity of younger staff more greatly compared to their older and more established colleagues.

Unconscious bias can derail effective recruitment, performance reviews and create exclusive – rather than inclusive – work cultures. All of which will hamper and restrain workplace productivity and performance.

How to sidestep unconscious bias

It is possible to reduce the effect of these unconscious judgements in your workplace. For example:

  • Be aware of negative and positive micro-behaviours and use conscious thinking to promote inclusivity and fairness when you see them arise.
  • Be scrupulous eradicating unconscious bias from position descriptions, advertisements and in written or verbal responses to job applicants.
  • Include diversity in your selection process, whether it’s who sits on a selection panel, who asks the questions during an interview, or who reviews short-listed candidates.
  • Use a range of selection methods in your recruitment process rather than relying solely on the subjective interview process.
  • Monitor what your Millennial staff think and feel, and how they act and behave when they’re invited to participate at work.

Governance and risk management

It’s not uncommon for senior managers to ignore discussions about fairness and unconscious bias. As Robert H. Frank, a Cornell economist and the author of Success and Luck puts it, “those in power think this world is basically fair and just, they won’t even recognise—much less worry about—systemic unfairness.”

However, equal opportunity and anti-discrimination are the law. Therefore, minimising unconscious bias and supporting fairness are risk management and governance issues – plus addressing these issues helps ensure the best people possible walk through the door each morning. Your recruitment and workplace practices vividly reflect the values of your organisation. Minimising unconscious bias and supporting inclusivity says much more about an organisation’s commitment to fairness than an organisation’s mission statement.

Talk to a specialist

To elevate your HR recruitment practices and outcomes, and bring a 360o approach into the heart of your business, talk to 360HR today +61 2 9819 6324 | admin@360hr.com.au.

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