Article: Why reducing unconscious bias is key to improving workplace diversity

Strategic HR

Why reducing unconscious bias is key to improving workplace diversity

Strategies that businesses can use to reduce the impact of unconscious bias in the workplace and increase employee diversity and inclusion.
Why reducing unconscious bias is key to improving workplace diversity

We all have biases that we are entirely unaware of. Often, these are inadvertent and stem from experience and subconscious beliefs. Some examples of common gender biases include nurses being presumed to be women or the use of the term ‘female’ entrepreneur. There are age biases often at play too. We may take it for granted that a young colleague may not have anything worthwhile to contribute at meetings simply because of their age and therefore presumed inexperience. 

In spite of the workplace progress, the LGBTQIA candidates are still facing bias at the workplace.  The "halo effect" or confirmation bias may crop up during job interviews, wherein recruiters may prefer candidates from certain educational institutions or certain backgrounds more than others, even if they show equal competence to perform the job. More often than not, the use of the term "culture fit" in a job interview can point to such bias being at play.

On this pride month, the question arises: how do these biases impact us at work? The recruiters may end up hiring candidates who they get along with, instead of someone who would be good for the company in the long run. Similarly, we can end up promoting, mentoring, and supporting those we are biased toward, ultimately greatly impacting the success of the organisation. 

A lack of diversity can promote groupthink and hamper effective innovation. To understand customers, who themselves come from different backgrounds and with different mindsets, organisations need a diverse pool of talent. 

Additionally, younger workers today show that they prefer to work for companies that are diverse. For younger generations, ESG (environmental, social, and governance) factors are growing in importance, and this is true even for investors who want to bet on an organisation’s long-term financial success. A study by Accenture found that US companies are losing out on $1.05 trillion dollars by not being more inclusive. There is so much value to be gained from improving diversity and eliminating bias. 

These are some of the ways that companies can limit the impact of unconscious bias in their workplace and improve diversity and inclusion for their employees.

 Raise awareness and understanding of bias: Acceptance of the problem is always the first step towards finding a solution. Recognise the biases that have a tendency to exist within your organisation in various roles: in recruitment, middle management, the sales teams versus the operations teams, senior leadership positions, etc. This will take a degree of introspection and might be easier said than done, as sometimes people find it hard to accept their own possible fallacies. However, this is an important first step and can set the right tone for all diversity efforts.

Training to limit bias: Involving D&I trainers and specialists in the field at this stage will also help teams to balance bias against the knowledge that comes with experience. This is extremely crucial to ensuring that bias does not creep in at times of stress or quick decision-making. 

Set diversity targets and become data-driven: Setting specific targets for diversity ensures that bias is not getting in your way in the process, and the organisation is in fact making progress towards its objectives. Employee evaluation should also be data and criteria-based so that there is limited scope for bias to impact growth for individuals. 

Ensure mentors are available to everyone: Mentorship is a large part of growth, and in this context, the saying ‘seeing is believing’ holds very true. Having mentors who come from similar backgrounds encourages individuals. Ensuring that junior employees have mentors who are invested in their growth and can show them different ways to achieve their professional goals within the organisation will ensure they feel supported. This can ultimately lead to a more diverse leadership team in the long run, as well as higher employee retention.

Listen to your employees: Ignoring employee feedback can be detrimental. When leaders stop listening; employees stop talking. This could lead to an 'echo corridor' and detrimentally impact psychological safety in teams, resulting in a risk of creating a toxic culture. Bias can creep in while taking employee feedback, as we may judge the feedback-giver or the situation too quickly. It helps to pay attention to our own biases at play when we hear feedback, and if in doubt, consult a trainer or specialist. 

An organisation’s culture has the potential to be its biggest competitive advantage in attracting talent, and companies should strive to create an environment where employees can come to work bringing their ‘whole self’ and perform at their best potential. This starts with ensuring that employees are doing right by one another by limiting their unconscious biases and encouraging different perspectives and worldviews. As research has shown time and again, diversity propels innovation and growth. Limiting bias and sensitising ourselves to others as unique individuals regardless of gender, age, ethnicity, nationality, or sexual orientation, is imperative for increasing diversity in the workplace. 


This article was first published in June 2022.

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Topics: Strategic HR, Diversity, #GuestArticle, #PrideMonth, #HybridWorkplace

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