I recently attended a session around Unconscious Bias, delivered by Howard Ross, one of the leading experts on this topic. Unconscious bias refers to the biases we have of which we are not in conscious control. These biases occur automatically, triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations based on our background, cultural environment and our experiences.
Unconscious bias affects every area of our lives, and in some instances the automatic responses are very useful. From a survival standpoint, bias is a necessary trait. Back in the Stone Age, if something looked like a lion and sounded like a lion, snapping into action quickly could be the difference between life and death. In business however, bias can be costly. It can cause us to make decisions that are not objective, and ultimately we miss opportunities.

There is a growing body of research which suggests unconscious biases influence key decisions in the workplace and are responsible for some of the enduring inequalities that are evident today. Without knowing it, managers make employment decisions that inadvertently give preference to tall individuals, thin ones, those without arm tattoos or people of a certain age. Or people may have preconceived ideas of what a “typical” customer or target audience for their products may look like. This can lead to not only diversity issues but also reputational damage, loss of revenue or even loss of life, as the following examples illustrate:

  • Using the same application randomly assigned to either a female or male applicant, selectors rated the male applicant as significantly more hireable than female applicants; they also chose a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant (Moss-Racusin et al, 2012)
  • In one study of 1,30 employers, dummy résumés with typically “white” names received 50% more interview callbacks than those with typically “black” names.
  • On a trip to Zurich last year, Oprah Winfrey, one of the world’s richest women, was refused service in an upmarket handbag shop because one of the bags was “too expensive” for her. Sales associates acted on their unconscious biases and made assumptions about the worthiness of a potential customer and their ability to pay for merchandise based on the colour of their skin. In the case of the Boutique in Zurich, it cost the store $38,000 when Oprah walked out the door. It also caused reputational damage, as the incident went viral and a public apology was required.
  • According to Google, the team that built the iOS YouTube app didn’t consider left-handed users when it added in mobile uploads, causing videos recorded in a left-handed person’s view of landscape to appear upside-down
  • An article by the Huffington Post states that American Express hiring managers had to change their underlying assumptions about appearance to adjust to the reality that many young IT professionals (one of their key talent areas) do not present themselves conservatively – with no bearing on their suitability for the role
  • A recent study done in 2014 by the National Academy of Sciences revealed that hurricanes named after women are deadlier than those named after men. As hurricane names are assigned alternately male / female and have nothing to do with it’s strength, the only logical explanation people have come up with so far is that people take “male” hurricanes more seriously and are taken better precautions, causing a lower death rate.

So, what can we do to address this within the HR workfield? As with any problem to be solved, the first step is acknowledging there is one, which can be hard. Nobody likes being told they might be sexist, racist or otherwise prejudiced. Perhaps there is comfort in the fact that we all are; once we accept this, we can start to change some of the ingrained habits.

One of the ways to create awareness is by providing Unconscious Bias training to employees. This is becoming more and more popular. More than 13,000 of Google’s roughly 46,000 global staffers attended a workshop in 2013. Following this training, staff became much more aware of the impacts of unconscious bias. This became evident when a new Google building was opened in which the conference rooms were all named after male scientists. Staff picked up on this fact which prompted several of the rooms to be renamed in honor of historically important women.

BAE requires that all 1,600 middle managers and executives take a two-hour class around unconscious bias. The company partly credits the management training (designed by diversity consultants Cook Ross Inc) for an increase in the number of women and people of ethnic minority targeted for advancement last year. It was aimed at getting managers to identify where bias crept into their thought processes rather than blaming anyone for the scarcity of women and minorities in top spots. By becoming more aware, we can start to interrupt our automatic stereotypical reactions and give conscious unprejudiced beliefs a chance to take over and guide our behaviour.

This is of course not something that happens overnight and in the meantime, there are some other simple techniques that can guard against the effects of unconscious bias such as:

  • Joint interviews of applicants
  • Representation of different minority groups on promotion panels
  • “Blind” applications – In the 1970s and 1980s, major orchestras in the US started to use ‘blind’ auditions with a screen’ to conceal the identity of the candidate from the jury – and even a carpet on the floor to mask the sound of high heels. Research has shown that this accounts for up to 50% of the increase in female musicians in the top five symphony orchestras (Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of “Blind” Auditions on Female Musicians, Gloria Goldin)
  • Giving advance notice about difficult meeting topics so there is more time for more introspective people to gather their thoughts (so they are not automatically overlooked in favour of more talkative colleagues).

Are there any other techniques you can think of?

If you are interested in the topic and would like to get more insight in the unconscious biases you may hold, Harvard University offers online Implicit Association Tests (IATs) that measures implicit attitudes, beliefs, and preferences.  Used by millions of people in over 20 countries, an IAT is the most effective tool available for testing one’s own unconscious bias.  A range of IAT tests focused on, for example, gender, age, disability, sexuality can be found by clicking here.