See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. That’s the mindset amongst many company employees, but the damage from bias in the workplace is real. To remove it, you have to be intentional.
Almost every company in the world has an “anti-discrimination” policy. Whether or not it is enforced is a separate matter.
Some businesses will argue it’s too costly or too time-intensive to root out biases. Others will simply say there is no bias in the organisation. And if there’s no bias, then there’s not a problem to fix.
The reality is that nearly every organisation deals with some kind of bias. We all have subjective viewpoints based on our own individual life experiences. This becomes a problem when we bring those biases into the workplace and negatively impact those around us.
Below are some of the time-tested ways companies mitigate prejudice. Although the problem may never be fully solved, every company has a responsibility to take steps toward a level playing field for everyone.
Understand the different types of biases
One of the reasons bias is so difficult to overcome is that most of it is unconscious in nature. Few people will ever overtly state their prejudices toward a certain group, at least publicly. It’s almost always seen in day-to-day conversations in hiring practices, which are largely anecdotal.
And yet, bias of any kind is extremely common. According to one study, over 60% of U.S. employees claimed they saw discrimination in the workplace (either toward themselves or others). Even if this number is only a fraction underreported, it still represents a huge problem in today’s workforce.
That’s why the first step in battling bias is understanding the various ways it can appear.
Gender and age bias involves making a judgment about someone’s abilities based on their age or gender. Someone older, for instance, is sometimes seen as less adaptable to technology, whereas younger people are eyed as naive or inexperienced.
Halo bias is usually associated with endorsers and social media influencers. The “halo effect” occurs when we carry our initial positive impression of someone to every other part of their personality. An attractive person can also be seen as intelligent or trustworthy. The same can occur in reverse if our initial impression is negative.
If someone acts like us, looks like us, believes like us, or is otherwise like us in some way, we could be guilty of affinity bias. Since we naturally want to surround ourselves with people who make us feel comfortable, affinity bias can create an echo chamber that shuts out competing ideologies.
Authority bias occurs when we instinctively place more weight on the opinions of a superior rather than on those equal to or below us professionally. Sometimes, authority bias can go hand-in-hand with appearance bias; taller people seem more authoritative. When the perception of authority is there, reality can take a back seat.
Recognise that problems exist
In a lot of ways, bias is a completely normal construct of our brains. We form stereotypes around certain groups of people based on our own experiences — and what we see from others — and treat them accordingly.
That’s not to say that bias isn’t a problem — it certainly is, and admitting that these biases can cause unfair perceptions is an important first step. A tech company that is less inclined to hire from certain schools because of the reputation that the school possesses in that field may miss out on a rising star.
From a strictly business level, that’s why implicit bias is a huge problem for businesses. There are also prevalent implicit biases in almost all industries, and businesses need to both address this issue and ensure their employees feel comfortable at work.
From tech to retail or even telematics, every company needs to invest in understanding its own implicit biases and design a plan do eliminate them accordingly.
It’s not enough for the human resources team or leadership to acknowledge the problem; it must be a company-wide initiative. Everyone has to be aware of their own specific biases and which biases are most likely to affect your company to address the problem properly.
Although this process requires quite a bit of introspection, tools like Harvard’s Implicit Association Test can help nail down areas that even the most honest employees overlook.
Diversify your hiring practices
The most obvious way to eliminate bias in the workplace is by making your business more diversified in the first place. Diversity recruiting affects the makeup of your workforce and can also drastically improve your bottom line.
Companies that have diversity among upper management report 19% higher revenues than those that don’t, while 85% of CEOs claim diversity improves their balance sheet.
No matter which way you slice it, diversity makes everything better — professionally, personally, and socially. But how do you create diversity in your hiring practices without sounding discriminatory?
There are several ways to accomplish this, but one of the most effective is how and where you place your job ads. Internships that are offered to minorities and career fairs located in more diverse neighbourhoods naturally bring about different groups of people.
Or consider potential candidates that employees refer, as they may come from similar backgrounds and communities. Moreover, the language that you use inside your job descriptions can be more inclusive. Specifically say that you’re looking to hire different groups of people; that type of frankness is appreciated more often than not.
In short, a simple tweak on the phrasing of your ads might make a huge difference and, in case of need, you can use a variety of available tools to achieve the right tone for your audience, such as a rewording tool.
Once your talent pool is diversified, the actual hiring practices need to be objective and transparent. Blind interviews work well, and artificial technology can even be used in the screening process to make sure the best candidates are contacted, regardless of demographics.
When you finally make your choice, focus on the facts. Never accept accusations about an individual based on prejudice; demand instead that any objections be supported with evidence. In doing so, you’ll find the people that are truly right for your company.
- Image: Pexels
Ask for honest feedback
Feedback Surveys can be an effective tool for market outreach, but internally, they can also be useful in determining how the company actually operates. Someone who may not be comfortable reporting bias in the workplace to their direct superior may feel emboldened to do so in a survey that they know will be traced back to them.
For that reason, it’s imperative that any surveys you do conduct internally need to be 100% confidential. Some software have features that help gather employee feedback anonymously.
When generating the questions for your survey, avoid any scenarios where bias itself can affect the survey. Don’t rely on data that only comes from a select group of people (such as only loyal employees or those from a specific department), and don’t phrase questions a certain way to create the desired response.
Questions like, “Some companies are accused of discrimination in the workforce. Do you think we’re guilty of that?” can make the respondent feel sympathetic toward the business. As such, the response will be skewed.
You should also consider asking your employees how you can better support diversity. Most individuals will have certain causes or nonprofits that they believe in, so use the opportunity to create a list of charities or businesses you can engage with.
Don’t forget about surveying potential candidates as well. Even if somebody did not get the job, an email that asks how their experience went — including a few objective diversity questions — can go a long way in establishing goodwill amongst future employees. You also have an inside look as to how diverse your company’s hiring practices actually are.
Lean on continuing education
Since most people don’t ever recognise their own bias, ongoing training will play a huge part in helping them identify where they can do better. Additionally, diversity training should include actionable steps that employees can implement with ease. Overload your company with too many directives, and nobody will move a muscle.
Nowadays HR departments can perform this kind of training with video software tools or in-person, depending on the type of company and the employees’ preferences. There are a bunch of alternatives to assist business managers with training, and it can surely be overwhelming to decide which solutions are the best for the team.
In that case, reviews from other teams or professionals, such as this Loom review, are a great resource to help them lean towards one option or the other.
Effective diversity training is never a one-off for company sub; it should always be tied into the company’s ethos. Diversity goals that are announced by management should be visible so that everybody knows where the finish line is.
Training should also be unique to the specific company. Surveys should be collected and data analysed in order to see where that company’s unique needs are. As a result, the training could then use actual scenarios that have been reported to the company. Mentorships and networking groups can be created to establish accountability.
While some companies argue that diversity training can be administered in-house, outside experts should also be brought in every so often to provide an external perspective. These companies are trained in leading sessions that will be constructive to employees at every level of the company.
They also don’t carry the baggage that some employees will associate with people from the company, so they might be more willing to listen.
Regardless, emphasising diversity is a never-ending process. Build it into the framework of your company and continue to educate others on its importance.
Despite your best efforts, many people still hold onto their biases in the face of all the training and evidence that demands they do otherwise. A business that actively encourages team accountability across the board is the most effective way to make sure everybody is on the lookout for discrimination.
However, in order for this to have any effect, upper management needs to buy in. They should be the ones leading the conversation, forming mentorships and accountability partners, practicing inclusive meetings, and creating an inner circle that is made up of diverse people inside the company to help them.
Be watchful that this doesn’t turn into a big dog-and-pony show, though, but that these initiatives are actually affecting change.
On a fundamental level, bias in the workplace is nearly impossible to police from a company perspective. It has to be personal to each of your employees. If they see bias, they need to feel comfortable talking about it with someone in charge. This can either be their direct superior or a member of human resources that they can trust. Enforce an open door policy for any suspicions of discrimination.
Some employees may feel wary about reporting inequalities in the workplace for fear of reprisal, especially if they are the ones who are guilty. While some infractions obviously need to be disciplined, a more effective strategy is to encourage them to simply make it right where they can. This is the way true understanding and toleration grow inside of an organisation.
On an informal basis, encourage people to acknowledge their differences and have an open dialogue about what makes people unique. These conversations can be constructive and go a long way in reinforcing the values that your company professes to believe.
Despite the fact that workplace discrimination is — and probably always will be — a large part of our world, that doesn’t mean it should grow over time. Steps like the ones above will help companies stem the tide of bias in the workplace and support groups that have felt like outcasts from time to time.
Eliminating bias in the workplace will also make your company stronger in many ways. Increased satisfaction at work and a more potent talent pool are just two of the intangible ways that diversity will improve your bottom line. You may not immediately see the direct effects, but you’ll notice them in the years to come.
About the Author
Brady Cook is a self-proclaimed efficiency freak with a passion for making technical concepts accessible. No fancy jargon here; just practical info that changes businesses and lives.