Unconscious biases at play in the workplace

Unconscious biases at play in the workplace

I think I am a feminist, but then again, who thinks of themselves as sexist or chauvinistic?

We may find ourselves having a preference for or against certain things in most situations, and sometimes, this happens unconsciously. The human mind is complex, and we are mere mortals. Our mind can have a powerful influence on us, that sometimes we are swayed by it while making decisions or choices, without even being aware of it.

Even after years of meditation or introspection, seldom are human beings completely aware of the delicate intricacies of their minds. We have a mechanism in place that perpetually protects ourselves from our guilt and anxiety. Thus, when we perceive the world, we always try to justify ourselves, and tend to look at ourselves as ‘good people’ who act only with reason. Holding a low opinion of our principles, values or choices is cognitively uncomfortable. After all, if we could criticise ourselves as well as we do for others, “to err is human” would be accepted more, as would the people who 'err'.

As human beings interact with their environment, we develop cognitive shortcuts, schemas, heuristics or rules of thumb to process information quickly and more easily. These are heavily influenced by our experiences, beliefs, values and are extremely subjective and personal. Sometimes, these may protect us from undesirable circumstances and conserve time and energy. However, they may also lead to stereotypes, prejudices and discrimination. When they are implicit or unconscious, the problem multifolds. It is further aggravated when this happens in the context of a workplace - a setting where one spends more than half of their days with people from various backgrounds, cultures, ethnicities, sexual orientations etc., and performance outcomes depend on mutual collaboration and synergy. 

Unconscious bias refers to “the associations that are made between different qualities and social categories such as race, gender or disability and are judgements that are made without conscious awareness.” In 1998, a milestone study carried out by a team of social psychologists at the University of Washington and Yale, concluded that biases ran through 90-95% of the subjects. Often, in a workplace, such biases may deeply interfere with processes of selection, recruitment, promotion and other essential activities. 

If we are in touch with any form of media, we are likely to have heard of multiple kinds of biases one may suffer from - social, cultural, and many more. What we are less likely to know about are types of psychological biases. As mentioned before, the human mind is fascinating. We often hold biased ways of perceiving information which usually go unnoticed. This can take several forms. Have you ever been impressed with someone simply because they happened to bring up something you are passionate about? Most of us have been there, done that. Little did we know, this is an instance of affinity bias, where we unknowingly give preference to people who we find similar to ourselves or relate to more, in terms of preferences, hobbies, race, gender or any other factor. For as long as we can remember, we have believed that good looks automatically ensure an attractive personality. When personality was originally defined, it was coined based on the term, ‘persona’, meaning mask. This is because many of us still tend to unconsciously prefer conventionally more ‘beautiful’ people over others. This is called the beauty bias, and is also common at the workplace as that too, is ultimately run by us flawed humans. Similar to this is gender bias. Even though this one seems self-explanatory, the various forms it may get manifested in can surprise us! Every time we choose a male for a physically laborious task simply due to his gender over a woman probably much fitter and stronger, we showcase this bias.

Few other common psychological biases are the halo and horn effects. Very appropriately named, sometimes when we look at a person, we see them through rose-coloured glasses, overlooking major mistakes and drawbacks, as if there is an invisible halo on top of their head shining so bright, that it blinds us to the rest of them completely. On other occasions, we perceive some people as if they are perpetually adorned with red devil horns on their head and treat them accordingly, even though often, it has more to do with our perception rather than their behaviour. When we overlook all other aspects of one’s personality as we are blinded by a singular, dominant, extremely positive or negative trait, we fail to accurately and holistically appraise individuals, employees and colleagues. These are known as halo and horn effects, respectively. Sometimes, we may even suffer from confirmation bias. This bias exemplifies the idiom, ‘first impression is the last impression’. Here, we already create a version of an individual in our minds and blindfold ourselves to any information that goes against this view. For example, we may judge someone wrongly based on their appearance, say tattoos or dyed hair, to mistakenly believe that they are not diligent workers. Even though they then answer all questions asked to them in the interview brilliantly, we may still not change our faulty opinion to a more accurate, positive one simply because we are not looking to. 

When people start discounting valuable talent unknowingly due to reasons irrelevant to the job role and company, the organization as a whole, along with its employees, culture and performance, suffers dramatically. Coming to a more economical aspect, when we have employees from only a specific background, we may fail to take into account needs, demands and opportunities that a more diverse workforce could have potentially offered. Besides, when employees do not feel heard or respected, they are not likely to give in their 100% to the job. They will constantly be on the lookout for better opportunities and the company may subsequently lose talent and even experience face-loss. Employees are the backbone, pillars and driving force of any organisation. When they are dissatisfied or demotivated, the productivity of the company will severely go down. This will also hamper their wellbeing and cohesiveness. Finally, lack of diversity and inclusivity is the greatest loss a company could face concerning its most precious asset - its human resource. In fact, in extreme cases, this can also result in cases of sexual harassment, workplace bullying, and expensive, time-consuming lawsuits. Luckily, there are preventive measures in place which may be taken to avoid this. 

Research shows that human beings process 11 million pieces of information per second on an average, and are conscious of only 40 of them. The toxic cycle of unconscious bias starts right from the moment an employer mentions a specific language requirement for a job role which has nothing to do with it, as a mandatory requirement to apply for a vacant position. Just like these biases, we are usually unaware of the potential losses they cause too. To keep them in check, firstly and most importantly, we have to be aware of them. Thus, if you are still reading this blog, then congratulations, you are one step closer to a healthier, more productive workforce. Next, it is our responsibility to constantly be on the lookout for them in ourselves as well as others. It is harder to identify them on our own as they are implicit, thus being open to criticism from others is also very important. We should consciously choose to interact with people from diverse cultures, and get to know them individually to understand their points of view and break our faulty preconceived notions about their respective communities. We can also get second opinions on hiring and promotion related decisions and invest in outsourcing professionally-trained counsellors to offer corporate and employee wellness programs to help us use more gender-neutral language in job advertisements, educate and sensitize employees about unconscious biases, to avoid them and promote equality and fairness in the workplace.