The Hidden Dangers of Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

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Our business experiences along with the mistakes we make—large or small—affect us. Sure, we’ve all heard that mistakes make us better at our jobs … teaching us one more thing that doesn’t work. They give us insight and the ability to proactively respond when a similar situation arises.

They also make us biased. Yes, our experiences give us unconscious biases or subconscious prejudice.

Don’t worry. We all have them. But it’s only a brave few who will admit it.

Examples:

  • You like to work with small companies because you’ve gotten personalized service in the past
  • That last millennial you hired was pretty sluggish … won’t make that mistake again
  • That left-handed designer sure is creative … better watch for that next time we choose a web developer

Obviously having an unconscious bias toward or against lefties, millennials or huge companies won’t change the world (or your workplace), but the bigger issues, including racism, sexism and ageism … lead to discrimination against entire categories of people. And biases can begin with one seemingly harmless negative (or positive) interaction or common stereotype. Our brains take over from there.

Yes, ironically, it’s our brains working correctly—to help keep us “safe”—that create implicit bias.

Nobel Prize-winning economist and author, Daniel Kahneman, and his late colleague Amos Tversky “realized that we actually have two systems of thinking. There’s the deliberate, logical part of your mind that is capable of analyzing a problem and coming up with a rational answer,” reports a bbc.com article. This type of thinking is slow and deliberate.

But most of the time we’re actually using our faster, more intuitive system of thinking. It’s this fast, instinctive mind that is in control—handling everything from switching lanes while we’re driving to work, to making a choice on ice cream flavors for our double-dip cone at Baskin-Robbins.

So, can you de-bias yourself? No. But you can (and should) be aware of and make allowances for your personal biases. You can build in safeguards to make decision-making situations more objective, make workers more aware and help ensure the treatment of individuals is more consistent. Here are three ways to manage unconscious workplace biases:

  1. Take the subjectivity out of recruiting and hiring. Carefully consider which qualifications really matter for each position you hire for. Create and consistently use a rating system for these qualities. Asking candidates to interview with two separate individuals can also help alleviate the effect of biases.
  2. Build teams that are conscious of the benefits of and the need for diversity. Educate team members about how diversity helps improve results. Discuss qualifications of specific individuals on the team. Encourage equal interaction and participation by all. Invite others to speak up for themselves (or for others) when insensitive or unaware colleagues interrupt or disregard.
  3. Create structured and consistent paths for career growth. To ensure that all new hires are treated equally, consider salary, training and career progression. Identify salary ranges based on experience and competence. Consider how you’ll quantitatively measure excellence so you can stick to your plan. Outline specific training needed for the position and any opportunities for advancement.

Everyone has biases, and being aware of them doesn’t change them. But more and more companies are taking time to get the right conversations started—the ones that help employees consider their own hidden biases. And then work to fix systems that allow these biases to create unintentional discrimination.

Related article: 10 Biases That Creep into Your Decision Making

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