Executive Education

The unconscious bias in the workplace

By James Calder, CEO at Distinct Recruitment
Executive Education
Published: 8 June 2018

Social stereotypes exist. They exist in every person’s mind regardless of how hard we may try as individuals to ignore them. But they shouldn’t be ignored. They need to be tackled and re-assessed, especially in the workplace. Contrary to popular belief, unconscious bias isn’t always created through negative assumptions about a certain person though. It all derives from your social experiences and this feeds into judgements made about individuals whether positive or negative. Whilst it’s true that sometimes it’s good to ‘trust your gut’, when this skews a work process, something needs to be reconsidered.

Types of unconscious bias
There are often 9 types of bias referred to in studies and analyses, in short these are the following;

  • Attribution – bias in how we attribute success or failure of others
  • Gender – bias comes from ingrained gender role ideals
  • Affinity – bias towards those who share your qualities
  • Beauty – bias towards/away from certain physical appearances
  • Confirmation – looking for confirmation of our own opinions
  • Contrast – comparing one item to another even if it isn’t required
  • Conformity – views changed by others around you
  • Horns – focus on one negative feature
  • Halo – focus on one positive feature

Effects on recruitment
In an era when the jobs market is as competitive as ever, it’s crucial the unconscious bias does not interfere with what should be a fair and impartial process. These bias’ are going to impact hiring choices, but reducing their impact and recognising when they are present is key in developing a 21st century recruitment process.

Any type of bias could change who you hire and why you chose them. Whether it’s a subconscious contrast comparing them to existing staff and not viewing them on their own merit, or an affinity bias preventing you from hiring those who don’t necessarily appear similar to yourself.

Effects on employee retention
If these employees have made it past the hiring process, perhaps you or other employees in senior positions are imposing their bias upon the team. Perhaps if management provide more attention and friendliness to certain individuals due to gender, beauty or affinity, this is going to exclude staff and drive retention down. Management will always try to not let their unconscious bias’ affect them, but once they’re recognised they can be altered.

How can you combat unconscious bias?
The first step is always recognising when you are wrong. Even for the least stubborn individuals, this is such an important trait in management and will streamline your business processes if you can find the bumps in the road before they are brought up.

Take pen to paper
Writing reasons for business decisions on paper encourages further rational thought. This, coupled with explaining those reasons with another colleague, is going to ensure there is minimal bias at play.

Equality and diversity training
Whilst not something everywhere offers, it’s a good step to ensuring your staff are all thinking on the same page. It doesn’t have to be an expensive speaker coming into your workplace, there are free resources and training available online. Spreading this knowledge around your team should encourage future bias prevention as well as initial recognition of the problem.

Encourage diversity in recruitment
By this, we don’t mean you should be hiring certain people to encourage diversity in your business, but when you are recruiting try to get people from a diverse range of backgrounds or mindsets . This way your bias cannot completely influence hiring choices as others may question this or provide conflicting opinions to allow you to rethink your decisions.

Allow an open dialogue
A workplace in which staff, no matter how few, can discuss when bias is taking place is going to progress in every aspect. Encourage honest dialogue between everyone and unconscious bias may stop being so clandestine.

About the author
James Calder is the CEO of Nottingham-based recruitment company Distinct Recruitment, who specialise in HR, marketing, web tech, finance, procurement and office support recruitment. These specialisms spread across a range of SMEs and larger corporations such as Vision Express and DHL, all with the focus on how ultimately, people make the difference.