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Written by: Avanti Deshpande
Having a diverse workforce and fostering inclusion is an important goal that most organisations strive to achieve. However, building a workplace that is both diverse and inclusive does not happen overnight, and maybe hampered by many factors. Unconscious bias is one such factor and takes many forms at the workplace.
What are unconscious biases, one may wonder: well they are biases that we are unaware of. It is a bias that occurs automatically and is triggered by our brain making rapid judgments and assessments of people and circumstances, influenced by our background, cultural environment, and personal experiences.
Bias means an inclination, a tendency built over time or preconceived notions about something or someone. Bias also means showing prejudice for/against something or someone and having a tendency to favour one thing or person over another.
Unconscious bias or implicit bias refers to the underlying attitudes and stereotypes that people unconsciously assign to another person or group of people which has an effect on how a person understands and engages with that particular person or group. They are cognitive biases that exist in an individual’s subconscious.
Unconscious biases are formed outside a person’s own conscious awareness, and it’s important to be aware of them. These biases are not restricted only to the more talked about biases such as gender or race (in the Indian context, also, caste), but can also exist towards disability, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, weight, religion, caste, and many other characteristics of an individual.
The findings of a report by Catalyst showed that companies with more representation of women in their top management teams saw better financial performance as compared to companies with low women’s representation, and had a 34% higher return to shareholders.
Such studies have found that the business benefits of greater diversity are immense – better innovative drive, creativity, recruitment and retainment efforts, and increased market share. Therefore, it is imperative that companies and business leaders act promptly to not just diversify their organisations but also act against pervasive unconscious biases.
On the surface, implicit biases may seem to be a smaller worry as compared to conscious or explicit bias. However, implicit biases are a cause for concern because they make individuals behave in small, but cumulatively significant, discriminatory ways. They can be either positive or negative and are activated without a person’s awareness or intentional control.
Unfortunately, these biases often end up becoming a significant contributor to the lack of diversity at workplaces. If they are not recognized and dealt with effectively, implicit biases can have negative consequences for both individuals as well as organisations. This article will discuss some of the major types of unconscious biases that are observed in workplaces.
Affinity bias is the unconscious bias to get along with, and like people who are similar to ourselves. It leads to favouring people who we perceive are like us. People are likely to gravitate towards other people who are similar to them in appearance, have similar backgrounds, have similar beliefs as it is easy to socialize and spend time with and around such people.
Affinity bias leads to people favouring those who they feel they have a connection – or affinity towards. This type of bias also leads to people’s micro-affirmations playing out.
For example, during an interview, if you feel an affinity towards the interviewee, you are more likely to smile more and attempt to put them at ease then you would for a person whom you feel no affinity or connection to. Affinity bias essentially leads to people having more favourable opinions about other people who are like them.
Unfortunately, affinity bias is extremely common and manifests itself significantly in the hiring process. People are simply more likely to lean towards people like themselves, people who remind them of someone they know or people who remind them of their own younger selves – essentially people who ‘look, act and operate’ like them.
It is important to note that, while similar qualities shouldn’t act as automatic disqualifiers, they shouldn’t function as the deciding factor either.
According to McKinsey’s Delivering Through Diversity report, companies with the most ethnically diverse executive teams are 33% more profitable, and here is where it becomes crucial to acknowledge affinity bias, as the lack of diversity is ultimately going to hamper a company’s growth.
Conformity bias is an individual’s inclination to behave similarly or akin to the people around them, irrespective of their own beliefs and instead of exercising one’s independent judgement and acting accordingly.
It refers to the human tendency to take cues for appropriate behaviour from the actions of others rather than using personal judgement.
Conformity bias is a serious issue as it can lead to serious lapses and have severe repercussions for a company. This type of bias is common because we seek acceptance and validation from other people. Further, people want to hold views and opinions that are considered to be agreeable within their community.
To build an inclusive work culture, it is important that people don’t feel the need or pressure to conform to the majority’s opinion and can freely express their reservations or differing or even unpopular views. It can lead to a reduction in creativity and innovation, restrict opinions and decrease healthy competition. It can make people believe that ‘fitting in’ is the best option to survive at a workplace.
An example of conformity bias would be a member of the interview panel or hiring team deciding to go with a particular candidate because the rest of the panel/ team expressed a favourable opinion about the candidate.
Confirmation bias is the inclination to process information by looking for, or interpreting, information that is consistent with an individual’s existing beliefs. It is essentially our tendency to cherry-pick information that confirms our existing beliefs or ideas.
Confirmation bias explains how two persons with opposing ideologies and beliefs can look at the same evidence and yet feel validated by it.
According to the American Psychology Association (APA), confirmation bias is “the tendency to gather evidence that confirms preexisting expectations, typically by emphasizing or pursuing supporting evidence while dismissing or failing to seek contradictory evidence”. Thus, confirmation bias is a significant cognitive bias that has an impact on people in the workplace as well, especially in aspects of decision making.
During decision making, confirmation bias can make the person making the decision have a selective observation which can lead to overlooking or rejecting information that doesn’t fit in with their views.
When after reviewing a candidate’s CV, the candidate is called for an interview and the interviewer, having formed an initial opinion of the candidate based on the CV consequently asks questions and steers the conversation so as to confirm their initial opinion of the candidate is an example of how confirmation bias is reflected in workplaces.
Confirmation bias clouds our judgement and leads us to ignore contradicting information that doesn’t fit within our views and beliefs. Another example of confirmation bias is employers tending to see women as less confident than their male counterparts thus, leading to women being passed over for positions and promotions.
Attribution bias can be described as the tendency to have different reasoning for one’s own behaviour versus that of others. This form of bias is related to our assessment of behaviour. For instance, when something good or favourable occurs, we are prone to attribute it to ourselves and our efforts as compared to when something negative or bad takes place, we are likely to attribute it to other people or external factors.
However, when it comes to assessing other people, we are often likely to think that the opposite is true, that the achievements of other people are a result of luck or chance and their failures as a result of their personality, behaviour or lack of hard work. These attributions are judgements and assumptions, which may not always be true or accurate and thus, may not reflect reality.
This form of bias is also sometimes referred to as self-serving bias. Many examples of attribution bias can be seen in workplaces. For example, people typically attribute their personal characteristics such as their great resume to the reasons that they were hired but blame external factors for their termination such as a short-sighted HR or incompetence in the organisation.
The halo/horns bias or halo/horns effect is a type of cognitive bias where individuals permit a single trait, action, event or behaviour, either good (halo) or bad (horns), to overshadow all others that follow.
Essentially, the halo/ horn effect is when our first impression of someone leads us to have a biased positive or negative opinion of their work or company. This form of bias leads to the tendency of putting someone on a pedestal or thinking more highly of them after learning something favourable or impressive about them, or conversely, perceiving someone negatively after learning something unfavourable about them.
Similar to affinity and confirmation bias, the halo/horns bias can make us ignore vital information by focusing excessively on only one feature either good or bad. It narrows our perspective which clouds one’s judgement. At the workplace, the halo/horns bias can arise in various circumstances such as recruitment, allotting tasks, underperformance and overworking to name a few.
An example of the halo bias during recruitment would be seeing that a candidate has attended a prestigious college or institution and subsequently due to the halo bias tending to view everything else about that person in light of that singular achievement.
An example of the horns bias at the workplace would be being unimpressed by a colleague or junior’s dressing sense and assuming that they are lazy or unprofessional, although competence is unrelated to a person’s attire.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated existing inequities and inequality. Thus, achieving greater diversity and inclusion has never been more crucial for companies and organisations. To ensure the realisation of these objectives, it is imperative to take cognizance of unconscious biases and the impact that they have in workplaces.
Unconscious biases can act as hidden barriers to achieving truly inclusive and diverse workplaces by having far-reaching impacts on recruitment, mentoring and promotions.
This can subsequently hamper leadership and higher-level management opportunities for women, individuals identifying as LGBTQIA+, persons with disabilities and persons belonging to any marginalized group. It can have substantial negative consequences such as bullying, harassment, discrimination, people feeling excluded, being less productive and unengaged.
To develop and maintain an inclusive workforce, it is important for organisations and companies to address unconscious bias. Only by developing genuine awareness of how unconscious bias works, can companies promote a genuinely diverse workplace.
About the author: Avanti Deshpande is a penultimate year law student at ILS Law College, Pune. Her main interest areas are human rights, gender laws and international law.