Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

We tend to think that we are rational decision-makers who rely on facts and data to make decisions. Unfortunately, we aren’t designed to be as objective as we would like to be. Regardless of our background and demographics, we all have our own biases that affect how we view and react to situations, and how receptive we are towards people whom we think are different from us.

Unconscious bias is a mental blind spot that shapes our decisions. It is activated without an individual’s awareness or intentional control and hence, difficult to spot, and is typically influenced by social stereotypes as well as one’s personal and cultural experiences. What we attribute to intuition or ‘gut feeling’ could be judgement shaped by our experience, assumptions and unconscious bias. However, if our ‘gut feeling’ is driven largely by our biases, it could lead to sub-optimal decisions. Under time and resource constraints to make decisions, we often fall back on unconscious bias to make snap judgements or convenient conclusions. Recognising that our innate biases exist is the first step to consciously managing them, so we can be fair and objective in our responses and behaviours.

There are many types of unconscious bias that can affect our decision and sense-making in everyday life. Here are five common types that you might come across in the workplace.

UNCONSCIOUS BIAS IN THE WORKPLACE

1. Affinity bias. Do you have an inner circle of co-workers at work? Do they have things in common with you? While having friends in the workplace is a good thing, we should consider if this could be the result of affinity bias, which is the tendency for people to prefer those who share similar interests, experiences and backgrounds. These individuals are referred to as our ‘in-group’ members or part of our clique. On the flipside, this type of bias can also make us averse or avoidant towards individuals whom we perceive to be ‘out-group’ members and negatively affect how we interact at the social level as well as how we work with one another and may affect our assessment of co-workers’ performance. Such behaviours can make workplaces seem welcoming to some, and at the same time, exclude others.

2. Halo Effect and Horns Effect. Now pause and think of someone whom you consider to be a confident presenter and describe this person. What are the words you would use to describe them? Do they tend to be positive descriptors which you associate with their confidence? If so, this may be the result of a ‘halo effect’ which is the tendency to focus on one particularly positive feature about an individual and allow it to skew and influence your opinion of them in other aspects. Conversely, the ‘horns effect’ works in the opposite direction, where one particularly negative trait of an individual clouds our overall perception of that individual. For example, a co-worker with short job stints may be perceived as an unreliable job-hopper.

3. Confirmation bias. Confirmation bias can lead us to form inaccurate impressions of others by selectively recalling and interpreting information that confirms our existing beliefs based on stereotypes or past incidents, while rejecting evidence that contradicts them. This is problematic in the workplace, as it leads to poor decision-making, miscommunication and conflict among co-workers. You can see confirmation bias at work when you cherry-pick specific information that reinforces your existing beliefs. For instance, assuming a team member is sloppy with his work based on his less than tidy appearance may make you constantly look out for evidence of sloppiness, or assume his work will always be sloppy. However, this may not be true at all – we are just looking out for information to confirm our beliefs.

4. Conformity bias. This is a common dilemma that we often face in group settings. For instance, when brainstorming solutions with colleagues, have you ever felt pressured to agree with the majority even though you may have some reservations, or when your opinion differs from the team? This illustrates conformity bias.

5. Attribution bias. This is the tendency to have different rationale for our behaviours and those of others. For example, we tend to attribute our accomplishments to our skills and personal traits such as determination, and attribute our failures to external factors beyond our control, e.g. the circumstance. It also reinforces our existing stereotypes – when a person displays stereotype-consistent behaviour, it will strengthen our stereotypes. However, when stereotype-inconsistent behaviour is displayed, we are more likely to attribute it to external factors to preserve our stereotypes. For instance, a manager with a stereotype about older workers’ IT ability might attribute an older employee’s good performance in an IT project to external factors such as good luck and strong support from team members, rather than his IT skills and accomplishments.

The various types of biases described show us how unconscious bias can manifest at the individual/micro level. If left unchecked, our individual biases could collectively have a major impact on the organisation. These may create an unhealthy work environment that fosters an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mindset and undermine collaborative efforts, sharing of knowledge and information, and affect work productivity and deliverables. In some cases, it leads organisations to groupthink and away from building a robust team with diverse perspectives and capabilities.

EFFECTIVE STRATEGIES TO ADDRESS UNCONSCIOUS BIAS
To address unconscious bias, intentional efforts are required and each of us has a part to play. The first step to combating unconscious bias is to recognise our own individual biases to limit their impact. You could start with these simple yet vital steps:

Take an online test. Harvard University’s Project Implicit1 provides a free online Implicit Association Test (IAT) which measures attitudes and beliefs that people may be unwilling or unable to report. For instance, an individual may say that both men and women can excel in STEM careers, but the test results may show that they associate men with science more than women; an attitude or belief that they may not be consciously aware of.

Assess your network. Ask the following questions – Within the last week…

  • Whom have I asked for advice among my co-workers?
  • Whom haven’t I asked for advice or listened to during meetings?
  • Whom do I surround myself with? Who is in my inner team and are they similar or different from me?
  • Who do I feel most or least comfortable with and why?

Assess your beliefs and actions. Take note of how and why you react in a given situation. Some factors to consider:

  • What are the assumptions I make about others?
  • Do I know them well enough to make these assumptions?
  • Have I had a regular conversation with colleagues who are different from me?

Once you have identified your biases, have an effective action plan to minimise and ultimately eradicate them. For example, try starting conversations with individuals whom you may not have sought out before due to a lack of common ground. On work matters, seek out opportunities to get guidance from and even give inputs and feedback to colleagues whom you have infrequent interactions with.

Making a deliberate effort to create opportunities to socialise and communicate with others with diverse backgrounds and experiences enables us to exchange ideas and perspectives, increase familiarity and appreciation for our differences and tear down biases.

Employers and HR professionals among us could also do our part to eliminate institutional bias by reviewing organisational policies, practices and processes. Break the cycle of bias by developing structured processes to prevent decision makers from relying on their gut feeling or unconscious bias when making choices for the organisation. Some essential steps for employers to consider include:

Ensure there is a set of objective criteria and an evaluation form2 to shortlist candidates when hiring.
Adopt a transparent appraisal system with measurable standards for assessing job performance.
Implement a clear grievance handling procedure3 to provide employees with a safe channel to raise their concerns and complaints without fear of negative repercussions, and facilitate the resolution of a grievance (e.g. if they are the subject of biased behaviours).

For more information on unconscious bias and how it affects our decision-making, you can watch a three-part video series developed by Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP)4 featuring six common types of unconscious bias and ways to overcome them. ⬛

1 Project Implicit. Education – Implicit Association Test. Available at: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/education.html
2 TAFEP. Resources – Interview Evaluation Form (Sample). Available at: https://www.tal.sg/tafep/-/media/TAL/Tafep/Employment-Practices/Files/Resources—Interview-Evaluation-Sample-Form.doc?la=en&hash=8BE2F96807B3B5394488C5B0F36D75DF409A56FD
3 TAFEP. Grievance Handling. Available at: https://www.tal.sg/tafep/Employment-Practices/Grievance-Handling
4 TAFEP. 6 Types of Unconscious Bias to Avoid when Recruiting Part 1/3. (YouTube) Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dIz3A1kQ9nQ

 


The Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP) helps employers build workplaces where employees are respected, valued and able to achieve their fullest potential, for the success of the organisation. Employers can approach TAFEP for tools, resource materials and assistance to implement fair and progressive practices at their workplaces. Employees or individuals who encounter workplace discrimination or harassment can seek assistance and advice from TAFEP.

For more resources and events from TAFEP, visit tafep.sg.

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