DiversityUnconscious Bias in the Workplace Gunjali Rana 
Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

When hiring managers look at resumés from Jake Smith and Sarah Smith who have identical qualifications but they label Jake as more qualified and offer him a higher starting salary; they’re displaying unconscious bias. Unconscious bias is characterized as stereotypes about specific groups of people that individuals form outside of their immediate consciousness. It is also known as implicit bias, and the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University defines it as “the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner”. While they might not be aware of it, those hiring managers implicitly believed that Jake would be better and more committed at his job than Sarah. Unconscious bias can keep you from hiring the right people, derail work productivity and potentially create a hostile work environment.

Here’s the issue: no one is immune to unconscious biases. Try taking some of the tests at Project Implicit, a non-profit investigating implicit social cognition – and find out where your blind spots are. We all have subconscious perceptions which span age, gender, race, ethnicities, cultures, nationalities, sexual orientation and a myriad of other characteristics. These biases reflect in our everyday lives from the color of our cars to the employee we choose to coach vs. the one we do not. From an evolutionary standpoint, these instant judgements helped early humans evade calamities and death. In today’s workplace however, these biases can become roadblocks for recruitment and hiring, undermine employee development and productivity and ultimately negatively affect an organization’s bottom line.

Unconscious bias shows up in our everyday work lives in small and big ways. There’s the halo effect, where a team member is viewed in a positive light rather than being evaluated fairly, leading to favoritism and disrupting team dynamics. Attribution bias is related to how we perceive our actions and those of others. Typically, individuals attribute their own accomplishments to skill and personality, and their failures to external factors. This is however, reversed when judging others – labeling a team member as “lazy” when he/she arrives late at work (personality), rather than empathizing with their car breakdown (external factor). And there’s well documented gender and ethnicity bias, where individuals prefer one gender or ethnicity over another, stemming from socialized beliefs about roles, stereotypes and attributes. And this is despite 37% of surveyed employees in a Catalyst study stating that gender diversity means better business results. These unconscious biases in our everyday lives can lead to engaging in stressful behaviors such as covering and code switching where individuals omit, hide or lie about personal characteristics, preferences or activities when they don’t feel a sense of belonging to the group, or change the way they dress and talk in order to better fit in. This mental load of concealing, covering and artificially changing depletes energy that could be put towards greater work productivity. In fact, a 2012 study by CEB found that diverse and inclusive workforces demonstrated 1.12x more discretionary effort, 1.57x more collaboration among team members and 1.42x greater team commitment.

Unconscious bias is ever-present in hiring and recruitment. A majority of mid to high level placements in organizations are sourced through referrals and hiring with an affinity bias – where candidates with backgrounds like yours are ranked higher than others, may lead to groupthink and needlessly disadvantage other qualified candidates. Similarly, comparing resumés may result in a contrast effect or judgement bias. Rather than assessing each candidate on their own, this could result in the “best worst candidate” being hired based on the pool of incoming resumes. Another factor is anchor bias – a belief that in order to do a job well, the candidate must be a replica of the previous candidate who held that position. Beauty bias is also alive and well in the workplace. We unconsciously believe that the best-looking individual will be the most successful. It’s no wonder that over 60% of CEOs in the US are over 6 feet tall.

So what’s to be done? It’s a complex problem given that most of us act on our unconscious biases, well, without realizing it. While workshops, safe places for uncomfortable conversations and training are good places to start, technology can be leveraged to help eliminate some of the scenarios where biases typically occur. Meytier is building a software solution to eliminate unintended and unconscious bias in hiring to attempt to make the selection process truly “blind”. We are creating a talent platform for candidates and enterprises that will use AI to address today’s structural and cultural issues in hiring. We hope to help companies achieve a stronger, more diverse pipeline for their organizations, ultimately resulting in a more profitable enterprise.

About The Author

Gunjali Rana is the Director for Diversity, Inclusion & Impact at Prudential Financial and adjunct faculty at NYU’s School of Professional Studies. Throughout her career, she has focused on corporate social responsibility with companies who are committed to building a sustainable sphere of influence around them. Previously, Gunjali taught at Marymount Manhattan College and was the Director for Corporate Social Responsibility at the NYSE, Intercontinental Exchange until 2014. She can be reached at gunjali@gmail.com .

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