Unconscious Bias and its Impact on Business Practice

March 16, 2017 | Rumeet Billan | MHS
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We tend to believe that we are seeing everything in its complete form, however, it’s not possible for us to see the world as it is. Instead, we see the world through the lens of our experiences, biases and various identity factors. As a result, the assumptions we hold shape the decisions that we make, but these decisions may be creating unequal outcomes for our employees.

Unconscious bias refers to a bias that we are unaware of. It happens automatically and is outside of our control. These biases, which for the most part are invisible to us, are triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations. Whether the biases are unconscious, implicit or explicit, they help us make sense of the world as we seek to understand it. Further, they guide our day to day decisions and are most prevalent when we are put under pressure, because we rely on shortcuts in our brain to help us fill in the gaps. Our past experiences and the assumptions we hold play a role in this, but the danger is that these shortcuts may be unintentionally creating unequal outcomes resulting in underutilized talent and marginalized contributions by our employees.

The human resources function requires careful and intentional consideration of unconscious bias and its impact on business practice and the decisions that are being made. For example, the recruitment process may be ignoring certain candidates with diverse life circumstances. For recruiters, considering vulnerabilities is important, but also looking at the capabilities that people from these life circumstances can bring to a position is important. Further, an exploration of policies that would deter potential candidates from utilizing these capabilities and their strengths in the workplace is critical.  

Unconscious bias can also be seen when resumes are sorted based on the candidate’s name and some names on resumes may be given priority because there is a belief that an ethnic group is dominant in the area of a specific skill. One way to reduce this bias is anonymized short-listing where all names are removed prior to reviewing applications. Another example is how we evaluate competency and whether age and foreign versus local qualifications are unintentionally viewed and valued differently. In this case, using standard applications may help to manage our assumptions.

Assuming that all stakeholders view and experience a specific policy or process in the same way can lead to unintended consequences. Exploring how diverse groups experience processes can help build awareness and challenge our assumptions. A few key questions to ask are; What am I assuming? How do specific groups experience this process differently? Additionally, in the interview process, training for situational explanations versus dispositional explanations can reduce levels of bias that may be automatic to us.

For leaders, it is important to be aware of how experiences, influenced by intersecting factors, can impact the decisions that we make. Our behavior towards others is influenced by hidden biases which can impact how we act, react and interact. Left unmanaged, specific groups may continue to be disadvantaged by our policies, programs and practices. Further, it has the potential to obstruct employee engagement and restrain specific groups from being and feeling included.

Steps can be taken to minimize the impact of unconscious bias in the workplace. This includes approaching policies in an informed way, specific training and intervention, empathy-driven dialogue and heightened self-awareness. As an example, gender-based analysis (GBA+) training is an evidence-based process with the goal of creating responsive and equitable policies. A core competency developed through this type of training and intervention is the capacity to challenge our own assumptions. Empathy-driven and reflective dialogue can help us to reframe policies that may be excluding specific groups. Further, heightening our self-awareness around the experiences that shape our perspective can aid in understanding how our assumptions are derived and where there may be gaps. Taking steps to minimize unconscious bias can help uncover the realities of people’s lives in all their diversity while improving our policies and creating a workplace that is inclusive.