We all have unconscious biases. Biases are an unfortunate part of human nature that has been around since the dawn of man. In today’s day and age, they are not as prevalent in the workplace as they once were, but that doesn’t mean they are gone. Bias in the workplace can manifest in a number of ways, such as in hiring practices, pay, promotions, and more. One of the greatest challenges is that people are often unaware of their biases. When these biases go unchecked, it can lead to all kinds of harmful hiring practices, pay gaps, and other problems.
Unconscious bias and the workplace
In the workplace, we rely on our brains to make quick judgements about people we encounter. We make these judgements without realizing it, using information we took in subconsciously, which can lead to unconscious bias.
The workplace is an important part of most people's lives, so it's no surprise that a common bias we have is to hire people who remind us of ourselves. This makes sense, because we know we are doing a good job for our companies. We automatically look to hire people we like, who also think like us; but this can be dangerous. Moreover, we tend to look for people that we can identify with and who reinforce our identity, which can lead to adverse effects on diversity within workplaces. Bias in the workplace can be even more insidious, because it is so difficult to identify. It takes a long time for people to recognize and discuss their biases.
Understanding our biases
The key to understanding bias is to understand why we have biases. Understanding what we are thinking and why we are acting in a certain way can go a long way in helping us identify where the bias is coming from and how we can counteract it. One of the big problems in human behavior is that we have a lot of biases that we don’t even know we have, so we can’t control them.
Our conscious brain is always making decisions for us, but most of the time our unconscious brain is actually in control. While our conscious brain is busy thinking about something else, our unconscious brain sifts through the thousands of stimuli we encounter every day and makes judgments, assessments, and decisions for us. These “gut” reactions happen so quickly that we don’t even realize they are happening.
We also don’t realize that they are based on our life experiences, which are shaped by our upbringing, social interactions, media influences, and personal relationships. Our unconscious brain is constantly trying to protect us, and it does this by making snap judgments based on the information we have stored in our memory (good or bad). Understanding that this is happening is the first step to combating your biases as they arise.
Methods to prevent bias in the workplace
1. Avoid Making Assumptions
Just like the human brain, organizations are complex systems. When you're trying to create change, it can be tricky and difficult. This happens because there are many different ways people can interpret the world around them. For example: You may interpret a coworker's tardiness to a meeting, as laziness. While another peer may look at the same situation and interpret the tardiness as someone who is a hard worker. While believing that person was busy working on the projects that will be most relevant to the organization's goal. In order to avoid bias, it is helpful to stop making assumptions about people’s actions or behaviors.
The best way to do this is reflect on any negative feelings you have about a situation or a person. Then ask yourself why you feel this way and is that necessarily true or are there other possibilities?
2. Be Wary of Behavioral Judgments
One of the key factors that contributes to workplace bias is a person’s instinct to make snap judgments. We make snap judgments from the first time we meet someone to the moment we decide who to hire for a job. We do this because it is faster and easier than taking the time to gather all the data needed to make an informed decision. However, snap judgements can enhance the risk of making the wrong decision. If we know about our biases, we can prepare for them in advance, and try to minimize the effect they have on our decisions in quick situations.
3. Avoid Stereotypes
Unconscious biases are a result of growing up in a society full of stereotypes or “tribes” and expectations. We all absorb, either consciously or subconsciously, the beliefs, values, and perspectives of the people and the culture around us. When you combine this with an individual’s unique personal and life experiences, it can lead to an internal conflict that causes biases to be triggered. A good example of this is the idea that women are more emotional, which as a society we are taught is a weakness in our everyday lives.
In the workplace, biases can lead to hiring decisions based on stereotypes For example, the idea that men have strong leadership skills and women do not. On the surface many of us know that this isn’t true. However in many hiring scenarios, a woman who hasn’t held a leadership position may not be thought of as a “leader” so it is automatically assumed she is not qualified for a leadership role. Whereas a man who has never had a leadership role is assumed to be qualified, because of the stereotype.
Taking inventory of our stereotypes will make us more open-minded individuals and lead to greater success in our careers.
4. Speak Up If You Notice Biases
You have a lot of influence. An individual’s influence is so much larger than just the people we interact with each day. Your sphere of influence includes your friends, your family, your coworkers, and your company. It's important to remember that not only do you have influence over who you interact with, but they have influence over you. That's why it's important to speak up, even if you have suspicions that biases are happening around you. There is nothing wrong with asking the question “why” something happened a specific way, to help to start the conversation and put a dent in bias.
5. Apologize if You Realize You Were Influenced by Biases
To deal with bias it is important to apologize, not only to yourself but to others, if you realize biases influenced your decisions or behaviors. Moreover, as a person who lives in their own “bubble”, it's easy to assume that everyone else lives in the same type of “bubble”. Sometimes we don't even realize that we are being biased, and then there are times when we don't want to admit to ourselves that we are biased. Apologizing for our mistakes is an act of courage and humility that benefits everyone. It builds bridges, heals relationships, and makes amends. When you apologize to someone, you are telling them that you are aware of your mistake, and that you are taking responsibility for it in order to move on.
Unconscious biases are assumptions we make based on the way we’ve been conditioned to look at the world. These biases are so deeply ingrained in us that we don’t even realize we have them, and they can have a powerful impact on our professional relationships.
Unconscious biases in the workplace, whether you’re aware of them or not, can prevent you from hiring the right person for the job. It can even cause you to unknowingly contribute to a workplace where your colleagues and employees feel undervalued and unfairly treated. Taking the proper steps to acknowledge biases are happening will help you prevent them from happening to you or the people around you.