Unconscious Bias – What It Is And What You Can Do About It

Jay Mava / Published July 29, 2020

Person Thinking About Bias

Over the last decade, companies and universities have instituted polices and procedures to study and focus on how to identify and limit bias in the workplace.



Companies are acquiring expert third party advice and other consultants to help evalutae their current company culture and how they are preceived by their employees as well as the customers they serve.



In addition to the outside advice, many bussiness are growing their Human Resource team to better examine root causes and potential solutions to this bias problem.



First of all, the foundational definition of Unconscious Bias according to Vanderbilt University’s Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion states that“Unconscious bias (or implicit bias) is often defined as prejudice or unsupported judgments in favor of or against one thing, person, or group as compared to another, in a way that is usually considered unfair.”



In addition, the researchers from Vanderbilt have discovered that unconscious bias occurs when the brain makes judgments based on one’s background and past experiences which would relate to a situation at hand.



This speaks to the amazement of the human brain and no matter how big or small a life experience is, we retain that information and this information forms our thought process in an unconscious way and subsequently makes us who we are and how we act to others.



This is opposed to being conscious or explicit bias(es) which may also be known as having prejudices. Vanderbilt researchers state that unconscious biases are typically directed toward minorities and are typically based on disabilities, ethnicity, race, religion, race, class, gender, and age.



When we look at unconscious biases together in the workplace, it should be understood that there are an abundance of biases, some that may seem smaller than others, while some workplaces may lack other bigger bias related issues.



Each company has its own different situation and different stages of a companies growth. This article will focus on the most critical ones that currently plague today's workplaces and help you be more aware of your biases.



Affinity Bias



This bias leads us to be more drawn to whom we feel we are more alike.



If you speak to someone and find out that you both played the same sport, for example, it would make sense that there is a personal connection to the sport that you both participated in.



Maybe a person looks like someone we know or has the same name. You may consciously or unconsciously think about someone you knew with this characteristic.

If we liked or not liked the person that comes to mind, that could certainly influence ones thinking about the person at present.



Person Thinking About Bias

Many would like to think as professionals we would not be influenced in any such way when it comes to judging others unfairly, but if we did not like a certain person, there could be unconscious bias affecting a recruitment or even an eventual hire.



In terms of workplace behaviors, people who went to the same college might have similar inclinations in their view of the world and be judged to be better than someone else. Also, if you went to a top tier school, you may feel that you should only assoicate top talent with people who only went to the best or more prestigious schools and overlook smaller institutions.



Again, this is despite what a normal recruiter could believe, or a department colleague would want to believe.



Another example is if a candidate we have an affinity for tells us they feel nervous. Words of encouragement may be offered to try and set them at ease. Whereas, if a person we shared no affinity with told us the same thing, we would not behave quite as warm towards them. After the interview, the first candidate would seem to be a better fit than the second candidate.



Another thought process involves the Halo Effect, such as in an angel’s halo, which has to do with someone thinking there is at least one amazing thing about the person in question, and there is a so called “halo” over that individual which gives off a glow positively influencing the opinions for that colleague or potential colleague.



We might like or have heard good things about a company for which an applicant worked and that might not mean that the person did well at that company, but still we are impressed, and consequently place this "halo" around the individual.



On the opposite side of the Halo Effect is the Horns Effect, think devil having horns. That is, one possible negative aspect of a person could skew a situation.



A common example is what one wears for the person’s attire, which if not liked, might be perceived as the person not caring about their appearance, being lazy, and unprofessional, even though professionalism and competence are not related to attire. Although if you are looking for some tips to look your best for a video interview, check out how to prepare for your next interview.



Attribution Bias


In the case of this unconscious bias, how we might look at an individual person or his or her successes can really affect recruitment. Think of it this way in terms of yourself. Most of us are inclined to think that what we achieve has to do with who we are as a person (personality) and our basic attributes and their value.



In turn, we think that when we fail at something it is because others are working against us, thereby keeping us from achieving our best.



But the reality is, we think the opposite is true when it comes to others. Achievements of others often seem that they are not believable and accordingly, any time another person fails, it is because of how they behave, or their fault do to their personality and viewpoints.



Confirmation Bias



We so want to find confirmation of our beliefs that we try to find, concentrate on, make decisions about, and remember what it is that confirms our perceived opinions of others and their influences.



This requires care to avoid judging, because Confirmation Bias could cause a recruiter to believe that our opinions are correct about a prospect. But if we are incorrect, a wonderful hire for the job might be dismissed for no valid reason.



So when thinking of confirmation bias, realize that you are not always right.



Ways to work on these biases


Your life experiences is what determines the biases outlined above. Remember in order to overcome these influences you must question each one of your biases and be open to chaning your viewpoints or at least be more mindful of your thoughts and judgments towards others.



Whenever possible, if you can transfer life skills with which you are comfortable to how you judge people overall, it may help you grow as an indivuidal throughout life.



Let’s say you had a neighbor move into the residence next door. You loved the former resident, so you were determined not to like the new owner/tenant. You found out in short order that this new person and his or her family were even better than the former neighbor(s).



If you were non-judgmental from the start, unconscious bias could not win and deprive you of a new and valuable friendships.



This is directly transferable to your professional life. The person in the cubicle next to you could be your next important ally at work or maybe even become a close friendship that lasts forever.



Do not overlook that person because of an unconscious bias. You will likely lose out.



Before continuing, you need to be sure that your Unconscious Biases does not define you. The fact is that they are just that, unconscious, and nothing to be ashamed of.



It is Conscious Bias, or explicit bias that is different. It is overt sexism or racism or some other kind of ism that is completely different.



But unconscious bias can be just as damaging, and it tends to be more prevalent so please try to accept whatever biases you've got and just focus on working to overcome them, says the website envatotuts+, which cites the ramifications of how unconscious biases affect every decision we make, and these facts can lead to “warped outcomes.”



According to research studies conducted at the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School:



  • Blond women’s salaries were 7% higher than brunettes or redheads
  • For every 1% increase in a woman’s body mass, there was a 0.6% decrease in family income
  • “Mature-faced” people had a distinct career advantage over “baby-faced” people
  • Both male and female scientists were more likely to hire men, rank them higher in competency than women, and pay them $4,000 more per year than women
  • 58% of Fortune 500 CEOs are almost six feet tall, whereas only 14.5% of the overall male population are that size
  • Job applicants with “typically white” names received 50% more callbacks than those with “typically black” names


These outcomes, according to envatotuts+, are clearly not fair for those who are on the wrong side of the stereotypes.



Think of it this way: no responsible business would hire someone because they looked more mature than someone else or because they had a more “white” name.



But if it is true that people are getting unfair treatment because they have red hair, that must mean that some good candidates are not hired despite being more qualified.



If someone is softer spoken in meetings than someone else, he or she might be less likely to be listened to much less have their good ideas adopted.



In addition, it could also mean that in existing staffing, the wrong workers are being promoted just because they were more assertive speaking.



Think of it also as being exponential. If you are acting based on your Unconscious Bias(es), it is likely that your employees and co-workers are doing so as well. This is a sobering thought for sure as workers could have misunderstandings with customers, and if they are serious, a loss of business could be the result.



So how do you fight against these Unconscious Bias(es) if you do not know what they are?



The judgment piece is one to remember for sure, and it should be added that if you find yourself judging based on the same parameters over and over, you should seriously look at that.



Also, think about these biases being formed very early on in life, even as far back as childhood, and try to think about what may have triggered it.



One way to overcome early prejudices is to vary your social groups.



Research has consistently shown that prejudice decreases as people have more contact with different social groups, and the same applies to Unconscious Biases.



Just having contact with the people toward whom you have got a bias and learning more about them can help to undermine your bias and replace it with new, more honest information.



Another very successful technique has to do with not looking at names or any other information on a resume that could affect your decision making.



Only the facts are important. Ask a colleague to remove, or white out the information that could bring forth prejudice, and associate a unique number with the person.



Make sure you are clear on what criteria you want to utilize to hire or promote someone. No justifying! Just the facts! Be more conscious and aware.



Speaking of that, it is a very good idea to be more observant about your company’s culture.



For example, are important meetings scheduled at the end of the day perhaps interfering with parents’ abilities to meet family responsibilities?



Prejudice alert: do not presume that these are necessarily directed at women.



Your company’s culture can create new prejudices or feed into your already existing biases.



One suggestion made by envatotuts+ may be to try to re-wire your brain, so to speak, by doing something to affect it. If you are against or don't understand the disadvantages of women in the workplace, for example, you could watch movies that are about women succeeding in the workplace to “unskew” your view.



No matter what, if you start feeling you are against a person for whatever reason, check in with yourself. You have more information now than ever to perhaps uncover your Unconscious Biases.



Now more than ever, it is so important in today’s world that we treat everyone as fairly as possible.



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