By now most of us are aware that sometimes our recruitment or promotion decisions are influenced by unconscious bias. As difficult as it may be to admit, many of us are unconsciously biased regarding race, gender, age, weight, educational level, language skills, accent, sexuality, disability even social class. No matter how unbiased we think we are, we may have subconscious negative opinions about people who are outside our own group. But the more exposed we are to other groups of people, the less likely we are to feel prejudice against them.
When it comes to making choices at work, it’s important to know they are not based on bias.
Are we discriminatory?
While we may not be aware of our prejudices, and prefer not to admit them they can have damaging consequences on both the way we manage and the people we manage.
Today I heard of a CEO who without realising is discriminatory in his language when he speaks of women. Regardless of intent, employees will suffer the consequences of this unwitting discrimination. Sometimes this can lead to mistrust, lowered morale and an increased likelihood of good people leaving the organisation.
Just imagine how you’d feel if someone was discriminating against you, based on some superficial aspect of who you are!
The Benefits of Diversity
Organisations that embrace a diverse workforce and create systems to support it can reap numerous benefits such as:
Increased adaptability. A team of people from different backgrounds can provide a greater variety of perspectives and solutions to problems.
Better customer service. Diverse people bring a greater range of skills and abilities along with empathy for different cultures, which can better meet the needs of customers around the world.
Greater innovation. Organizations with a diverse leadership tend to perform better at this. A Forbes study has identified workforce diversity and inclusion as a key driver of internal innovation and business growth.
Improved recruitment. Welcoming candidates regardless of race, gender, age, or background means you can hire from a larger pool of people, meaning that you are more likely to hire the best people on the job market. Embracing diversity can also improve existing staff members’ loyalty to your organisation.
How to Avoid Unconscious Bias
You can address these discrimination issues by increasing your awareness of your unconscious biases, and by developing plans that make the most of the talents and abilities of your team members.
You also need to be honest with yourself about the stereotypes that affect you. For example, you may consciously think that men and women are equally effective leaders but, as a woman, you believe that men perhaps don’t have the same level of empathy and people skills as women. That subconscious bias could influence your actions so that male candidates could be excluded from certain roles or positions.
Recruitment is an area where unconscious bias may come into play. People may unwittingly tend to favour applicants from their own familiar backgrounds. But you can take practical steps to reduce this bias. For example, when you read resumes, read several side by side rather than just one a time. That way you focus more on the performance and skills mentioned than on issues such as gender.
Neurological tests and exercises can uncover unconscious biases and reduce their influence. One way to reveal your own unconscious bias is by taking the Implicit Association Test (IAT), created by researchers from Harvard, Virginia and Washington universities. This measures the strength of links you make between concepts, for example race or sexuality, and evaluation of stereotypes, such as whether those concepts are good or bad.
Another useful exercise is to imagine a positive contact with the group toward whom you may have a bias. Visualising a particular situation can create the same behavioural and psychological effects as actually experiencing it. For example, in tests, individuals who imagined a strong woman later showed less gender stereotyping than people who had not.
Focus on People
Many organisations are so focused on their processes that they lose sight of their people.
Set consistent, objectives that are fair across the team. Focus on individuals’ strengths and successes, rather than faults and weakness, while discussing performance issues.
You need to be impartial about facts, but it is helpful to understand people’s feelings. Your team members need to feel heard and to have their concerns and frustrations acknowledged. If any of them feel they are being discriminated against, let them explain their situation to someone in your Human Resources department as a safe, open channel.
Increase Exposure to Biases
Many organisations fail to weed out some subtle biases. Declare your intentions about valuing a diverse workforce. Saying words out loud, or writing them down, sends a clear message to everyone, as well as to your own subconscious.
Exposure to negative stereotypes can reinforce their influence on your behaviour, even if you don’t consciously agree with them, so consider providing positive images in the workplace, for example, using posters, newsletters, reports, videos, and podcasts.
Surround yourself with positive words and images about people you might have stereotypical thoughts about, to help eliminate negative biases. For example, if you are interviewing someone who has just moved from India and you’re worried about her language skills, look at positive images or success stories, so you won’t subconsciously assume she is not capable of doing the job.
Use language that is clear and non-biased , such as “he or she” instead of always using “he,” in internal documents, job descriptions and other management practices.