Hidden Bias at Work

The Illusion of Inclusion – Roadblock #6

Unconscious Bias

To be truly inclusive, “unconscious bias” among bosses and colleagues must be addressed. Individuals make assumptions and determinations about what is real every moment of the day. We encounter millions of pieces of information, which we believe to be real; rarely considering how subjective our determinations may be, or how our “interpretation” of what we see and hear, is impacted by our subjective personal lens. Even knowing we are inherently biased, may not enable us to prevent bias from influencing how we think and make decisions.

The Deep Impact of Unconscious Bias in the Workplace
Unconscious bias is often a factor in circumstances where people make choices that seem to make no sense, or appear to be driven by overt prejudice…even when they are not. While some individuals may be consciously hateful, hurtful, and biased; it is important to recognize that everybody demonstrates some degree of “unconscious bias,” no matter how caring or considerate they may be. These biases can be especially far reaching and destructive within the medical and social service sectors, the media, marketing, public relations, and political realms.

Each one of us has encountered groups with which we consciously feel uncomfortable. While these conscious patterns of discrimination are problematic, they are minimal compared to the unconscious ones, which impact us on a daily basis.  Because the unconscious perceptions influence important decisions, they profoundly affect our lives.  Unconscious bias can influence whether the most qualified candidate is hired for a job; the fairness of an employee’s performance review; or whether the right CEO is selected.

A number of studies have illustrated how unconscious bias impacts business decisions. For example, one group of researchers distributed 5,000 resumes to 1,250 employers who were advertising employment opportunities.  Some resumes were mailed out with names determined to be “typically white,” while others displayed names considered “typically black.” Each company received four resumes: one of each race considered “average,” and one of each race considered “highly skilled.” Interviews with human resource employees had established that most of the companies were aggressively seeking diversity; which would likely compel employers to lean toward those candidates, whose names suggested they were “black.”

However, the results demonstrated that resumes with “typically white” names received 50 percent more callbacks than those with “typically black” names.  While highly skilled “typically white” named candidates received more callbacks than those considered average; there was virtually no difference between the numbers of callbacks received by highly skilled versus average “typically black” named candidates.  And most surprisingly, researchers discovered “typically white” named candidates, who were average, received more callbacks than “typically black” named candidates, who were highly skilled.

Affinity Bias
Unconscious patterns can be subtle.  When individuals have a lot in common they often feel a sense of familiarity or “chemistry.”  They instantly like each other, although they may not know why.  This “connection” facilitates their ability to justify imperfections in one another.  The affinity impacts the degree to which they support and encourage one another; invisibly influencing outcomes in a variety of situations.  This can impact the way one: recruits people, makes hiring decisions, conducts an initial orientation interview, mentors employees (or not), assigns responsibilities, provides training opportunities, listens to employees’ ideas and suggestions, makes promotional choices, reviews performance, defines organizational policy, conducts marketing campaigns, chooses board members, treats customers…and literally hundreds of other activities, which can dramatically impact an organization’s success.

Unconscious Self-Perception and Performance also impact how we view ourselves and our work performance. Decisions are made primarily in ways that confirm the beliefs we already have.  This occurs unconsciously in both positive and negative ways.  Our thoughts and decisions are constantly influenced by societal stereotypes.  For example, some unconsciously believe “young Hispanic men are lazy” (as untrue as the stereotype might be).  This can impact a supervisor, who manages a young Hispanic man.  If the employee makes a mistake; the boss is less likely to accept his explanation.  As a result of the stereotype and the boss’s resulting actions; the young man might become frustrated or angry.  He may even internalize the criticism; believing he is at fault.  Becoming resigned and losing motivation, he might leave, or having experienced this bias repeatedly…believe this is “the way it is” everywhere, and stay; simply “going through the motions,” and responding in a way, which appears “lazy;” reinforcing the inaccurate stereotype.

Unconscious Organizational Culture Bias
Unconscious behavior is not just individual; it influences organizational culture as well. Which is why even the best attempts to change corporate culture with diversity programs seem to fall short.

Organizational culture evolves from basic assumptions and interpretations that the company has invented, discovered, or developed.  Unconscious patterns, or cultural “norms,” influence decisions, choices, and behaviors; hindering attempts to change or improve a flawed corporate culture.  Despite conscious efforts, the “organizational unconscious” perpetuates the status quo.

Flexible workarrangements are one area where employees’ conscious choices and the “organizational unconscious” tend to conflictFlexible hours are established to allow employees to meet personal needs.  Many organizations state the policy within employee manuals.  However, when employees actually take advantage of it, they can be viewed by others – including coworkers, bosses, and company leadership – as “less committed,” “less valuable,” or “less desirable” members of the team.  While the “official rules” support flexible work arrangements; employee conflict results.  The organization consciously acknowledges that the policy is good business, often helping to increase retention and employee satisfaction, yet the organizational unconscious is not up to speed.  A culture of fear and mistrust pervades.  These conflicts frustrate employees, who may perceive the company, and its leaders, as disingenuous, when in actuality, the leaders may not see the conflict themselves.

Unfortunately, diversity on a conscious level may have little impact on unconscious beliefs, or behavior. However, several things are clear:

  • The limiting patterns of unconscious behavior are not restricted to any one group. All of us have them.  Diversity professionals in particular must focus on their own personal assumptions and biases, if they expect to have the moral authority to guide others in acknowledging and confronting bias.
  • People who behave in a non-exclusive, or even discriminatory ways, do not necessarily have negative intentions.  We are more likely to gain the attention and compliance of others by assuming their intentions are innocent, and emphasizing the impact of their behavior, rather than implying they “should know better.”
  • Organizations should not rely on subjective determinations of attitude, either individually or collectively, to determine whether they are functioning in inclusive ways.  Conscious attitudes have little to do with success in producing results. Objective measurements, which provide individual and collective feedback on performance, are necessary to create a truly inclusive workplace.

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Roadblock #7 – Trainers Lack Expertise – One size Does NOT fit all

Go to The Illusion of Inclusion – Call Me “Crazy”

Be Counted!  Illuminate Mental Diversity at Work.
There is safety (AND strength) in numbers. “All for one, and one for all.”

Suggestions, feedback, comments, and questions welcomed at MindingDiversity@aol.com

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© October 2015

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