Unconscious Bias: A Guide

The way that we look at and think about other people in the workplace has many determining factors. No matter how tolerant a person may be, there remains an unconscious bias that affects the way that we react to those around us. This can have a very detrimental effect on a small business. Unconscious bias manifests in both our professional and private lives, but in the workplace, it can drastically affect the performance of your company.

This guide is intended as an overview of where and when unconscious bias is most common in the working environment and offers suggestions on the best ways to tackle it so that your business remains strong.

What is Unconscious Bias?

The fact is that unconscious bias is a challenge to avoid. When we grow up, we form deep views of the world around us, and that includes making judgments. Unconscious bias manifests in two noticeable ways. The first is by grouping specific demographics together regardless of the reality. This is most common when we see people. We judge a person by what they look like, their history, gender, or their finances.

“Unconscious perceptions govern many of the most important decisions we make and have a profound effect on the lives of many people in many ways. …Unconscious patterns can play out in ways that are so subtle they are hard to spot.” Howard Ross, Founder & Chief Learning Officer of Cook Ross Inc.

The Halo Effect

We are predisposed to favor those people who are most like us. However, unconscious bias can also be seen in regards to the ‘halo effect,’ which is when we allocate traits to a person without them even knowing why. Most commonly, this is most noticeable when it comes to clothing, with those who wear more conservative attire more likely to develop a good working reputation no matter how poor their output may actually be.

It’s important to understand that everyone has some level of unconscious bias. It is a perfectly natural response to the unknown, and it is mostly unintended. When it becomes intended, then it shifts to become intended bias, which is very different.

The Workplace and Unconscious Bias

So, how does this affect the small business owner? For your HR department, it can affect recruitment, and that means you are putting restrictions (even unconscious ones) on your ability to hire the best people for the job. Promotions, staff development programs, and even rewards can all be affected by unconscious bias and will mean that your team is far weaker through a lack of diversity.

  • Example One – You have two potential new team members. Both have the same qualifications and similar experiences. However, one has a tattoo that is visible even in their work clothes. Even though this person is interviewing for a non-customer facing role, unconscious bias makes it likely that you will choose the other candidate.
  • Example Two – You are meeting your bank manager to discuss a business loan in order to obtain industrial equipment financing. Your application is rejected because you do not look professional enough, or your accent is not commonly heard. This can drastically affect your ability to obtain commercial loans or an interest free business loan. The unconscious bias of the bank manager could prevent you from receiving any funding for future company acquisitions.

How Does This Impact Your Small Business?

We create stronger teams by combining a variety of strengths and experiences. If your hiring process is suffering from unconscious bias, then you are not getting the strongest possible team. Those learned stereotypes may well be automatic and unintentional, but they do continue to dictate the decisions that we make. Unconscious bias is the reason why there remains a gender bias in many industries.

“Time and again, the research shows that interviews are poor predictors of job performance because we tend to hire people we think are similar to us rather than those who are objectively going to do a good job.” -Ori Brafman, organizational behavior expert

How To Tackle Unconscious Bias

It is essential that you are aware of your vulnerability to unconscious bias, but knowing how to tackle that inherent trait can be challenging. While nobody is entirely free of unconscious bias, there are steps that you can take to ensure that your recruitment process and workplace are less affected by it.

  1. Recognize that your current methods of hiring and promotion may be affected by unconscious bias.
  2. Review your hiring process to identify hidden bias. It can mean changing the wording on your recruitment advertising to be more inclusive or changing the way that you assess resumes.
  3. You can use anonymity to your advantage. This can apply not just to the hiring methodology, but also by committing to regular in-house surveys with a focus on unfair practices and hidden bias. You might also consider asking previous employees for anonymous feedback regarding their time working with your company.
  4. Have an established complaint procedure. This can even be addressed by not limiting yourself to in-house resources. An external ombudsman can help you work through any issues that an employee might have.
  5. Promote diversity in your workplace, and encourage positivity in your branding in regards to people of color, LGBTQ, and female demographics. Use positive reinforcement to tackle unconscious bias, and you will find that it becomes far more noticeable when it is acting in a negative way.

Unconscious Bias and the Law

Even if your bias is not a conscious factor, when it comes to turning down a hiring application, it can still leave you exposed to a legal claim against you and your business. You are not allowed to discriminate on the grounds of disability, age, gender, relationship status, pregnancy, religion, race, or sexual orientation. Discrimination on these grounds, even if that discrimination was unconscious, can leave your business vulnerable. For those business owners that wish to keep their business safe and secure, tackling unconscious bias is more essential than ever.

To Conclude

Businesses need to incorporate a wide range of skill sets and experiences to remain as productive and creative as possible. Unconscious bias is the enemy of significant growth. By refusing to tackle the prevalence of unconscious bias in your business, you are ensuring that your team is not as strong as it can and should be.