Ah, good old workplace bias. We all know it exists, but sometimes it can be hard to spot. Bias and prejudice can sneak into even the most progressive workplaces, hidden within a ‘harmless’ joke, or a well-intentioned comment. Workplace leaders need the tools to shed light on these biases, arming them with the knowledge they need to recognise and conquer them — it is 2023, after all.
Today, bias is still one of the biggest factors affecting workplace inclusion. But guess what? It doesn’t have to be that way.
Bias is basically a tendency to prefer one thing over another. This can be a person, idea, group, place — anything. We all have different biases; they come from our unique life experiences and we might not even be aware of them. It can be pretty harmless, like when you automatically choose the exact same toothpaste brand every time you shop because your primary school teacher swore it was the best by far, but it can also carry more meaning. Having a bias doesn’t make you a bad person — we all have them — but they can have a huge impact when left unchecked, and today continue to be one of the biggest barriers to progression faced by marginalised groups.
Broadly speaking, bias comes in two forms: conscious and unconscious, so oftentimes you can be biased without even being aware of it. However, any kind of bias can affect people’s real lives and experiences in the workplace, and those in marginalised and underrepresented groups bear the full burden of it in all its forms.
It is common to value information more when it confirms a pre-existing belief over information that asks us to question our beliefs. This can affect our judgement.
For example, when interviewing two candidates for a position, an interviewer might look for qualities that confirm a preference they already have (if they studied at the same university, for instance). This means that, unconsciously, the two candidates are being valued differently, and the decision will not necessarily be based on true suitability.
Authority bias refers to the tendency to believe what somebody says, or share their opinion, purely because they are in a position of authority. This can be dangerous when dealing with internal complaints between two colleagues, for example, because authority gives one party more power. Authority bias can also hinder diversity of thought in the workplace.
In a workplace environment, it might feel easier to hold beliefs that conform with the rest of your co-workers, rather than question them, even if the group beliefs aren’t ones that you held previously.
Conformity bias is especially prevalent in workplaces that lack diversity, which makes it harder for colleagues to diverge in their thinking. For example, on a hiring panel, an interviewer might be swayed towards choosing one candidate over another because others on the panel expressed the view that one was preferable.
Able bodies are seen as the default, and because of that, the workplace is designed for able-bodied people which oftentimes can shut out those with disabilities. This can manifest in many ways, from lack of accessibility to discrimination in recruitment, and is harmful whether conscious or unconscious. For example, a company running webinars, meetings or video training without closed captions affects accessibility.
The kind of bias termed the ‘Halo and Horns effect’ affects how people are treated differently. The Halo effect is when we allow a positive impression to overpower reasonable judgements, so we ignore negative actions because of one quality we favour.
The Horns effect is the opposite, in that we may focus on the negatives of an individual based on one ‘less favourable’ trait, which can interfere with decision-making.
A staggering 38% of hiring managers taking an online survey admitted to being biased regarding age when hiring. This means they were hiring with prejudgement based on candidates’ age, and was shown to affect both younger and older people, manifesting as unfair disadvantages that arise based on age rather than credentials. In the survey, young people were seen as inexperienced, whereas older people were pre-judged as ‘outdated’ in their approach.
Ethnic and racial bias in the workplace refers to the unfair treatment of employees based on their ethnicity or race. This can manifest in various ways, such as discrimination in hiring, promotion, or pay; harassment or hostility directed at employees based on their ethnicity or race; and the use of stereotypes or assumptions about employees based on their ethnicity or race. Ethnic and racial bias can also take the form of unconscious biases, which are attitudes or stereotypes that a person holds unconsciously and can influence their behaviour without their awareness.
#8: Gender Bias
Gender bias refers to treating someone differently based on gender, such as assuming someone of a specific gender is better suited to a specific job. Gender bias can be directed towards anyone, but most commonly, it is directed at women and can be seen in the gender pay gap.
#9: Appearance Bias
Appearance bias is a less spoken-about form of workplace bias. It includes the judgments and prejudices that can be made about people based on physical attributes such as race, gender, age, weight, height, clothing, hair, and grooming, as well as perceived social characteristics like education, income, and cultural background. It can result in unequal opportunities and treatment in the workplace.
#10: Socioeconomic and Education Bias
Socioeconomic and education bias refers to the prejudices and stereotypes held towards individuals based on their socio-economic status and level of education. This can include income, wealth, occupation, housing, and access to resources and opportunities. For example, an employer may be less likely to hire someone without a university degree, even if they have more relevant experience and are better suited to the role.
We know bias exists, and how it can present itself — but what can you do to address it in the workplace in the journey towards equality? Here are 3 key ways that you can recognise and avoid bias in your workplace:
Awareness — Accepting that everyone has biases, and becoming aware of when you or other colleagues are exercising bias, is the first step to effectively dealing with its repercussions. Valuable tools like Implicit Association Tests or specific bias awareness training can be very beneficial for helping everyone in a workplace become more aware of their bias.
Objectivity — When making decisions or evaluating performance, strive for objectivity by considering only relevant information and facts. Avoid basing decisions on personal opinions or stereotypes, and instead, develop a transparent and objective standardised framework for decision-making that ensures fairness and equity.
Diverse perspectives — Encourage diversity of thought and background in decision-making processes by seeking different perspectives and engaging with individuals from diverse backgrounds. Foster an inclusive workplace culture that values and respects differences.
Research shows that with the right training, people can become more aware of their bias and consciously reduce its impact on others. Through finding the right approach and developing an inclusive workplace culture, this can absolutely be achieved.
Remember, you have to try. These problems won’t fix themselves 😉