Identify Unconscious Bias for Workplace Efficiency

By Kathy Gurchiek Oct 15, 2014
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NEW ORLEANS—Unconscious bias—those subtle assumptions we make about others—is largely wired into how our brains work, but being aware of that can help us adopt strategies that allow for greater collaboration, said Howard J. Ross.

Ross spoke at the session “Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgments in Our Daily Lives” at the 2014 SHRM Diversity & Inclusion Conference & Exposition here Oct. 13.

“What’s ‘professional-looking’? What’s ‘nice’? What’s ‘competent’?” he asked during the session that explored how we think and how unconscious bias affects workplace efficiency.

“We take the bits of what we see,” such as a person’s accent or handshake, “and fill in the blanks of who we think that person is,” he pointed out. People look for things that are important to them, “not necessarily what [qualifications] are important to the job,” and make judgments accordingly.

“It’s the way our minds work, but, because we’re unconscious about it, we don’t pay attention [to that bias]. We can never make all of our biases go away,” Ross said, but being cognizant of them can prevent a manager from overlooking a person who might perfectly complement a team.

Dismissing an applicant because he or she lacks a college degree, for example, could mean missing out on someone like Bill Gates, who didn’t finish college.

The question to ask ourselves, Ross said, is not do we have bias, but which bias is ours? “We all have an internalized book of rules and ideological structure we live our lives [around]. They teach us how we’re supposed to ‘be’ in the world.” When people don’t fit those rules, bias can kick in.

That can affect our perception of an employee’s competence. Maybe the employee has a disability, is obese, or is an older or younger worker.

“This is why Millennials get so frustrated,” Ross said. “We may like them very much, but we don’t respect their competence.” Conversely, we may see members of a particular minority as highly competent, but, because of our bias, we may not feel comfortable working with them.

“We know this [unconscious bias] is affecting everything we do,” he said. “We have to develop strategies and we have to develop a new awareness—a new paradigm—for how we approach the way we think.”

How Do I Get This Right?

First, Ross said, it’s important to recognize and accept that you have bias and then to develop the ability to be aware of those biases. Explore feelings of awkwardness and discomfort to determine where they stem from, engage with people you consider “others” and expose yourself to people from that group.

Be on guard against selective awareness or unintentional blindness, such as seeing one employee’s explanation for his or her actions as an “excuse” while seeing another’s explanation as a “reason,” based on the bias—good or bad—you have toward each employee.

Additionally, practice constructive uncertainty by remembering to PAUSE:

  • Pay attention to what’s actually happening.
  • Acknowledge your own reaction, interpretations and judgments.
  • Understand the other possible reaction to the bias you hold
  • Search for the most empowering way to deal with that bias.
  • Execute your action plan.

Kathy Gurchiek is the associate editor of HR News.

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