Unconscious bias in the workplace

A new advertisement from Procter & Gamble features an African-American man going about his day. While walking down a street, a mother shuts her car window as he walks by; he garners suspicious glances while shopping and a couple elects not to sit near him in a restaurant.

The commercial, dubbed “The Look,” ends with the statement: “Let’s talk about the look so we can see beyond it.”

Intended to spur conversation about racial bias, the spot attempts to depict unconscious bias in daily life.

“Unconscious bias” refers to the stereotypes – both positive and negative – that exist in the subconscious and affect behavior. For employers, such stereotypes are particularly hard to handle as people often don’t even realize they exist, let alone that they are being used in the workplace.

Take resumes, for example. In 2012, scientists at Yale conducted a study of identical resumes that differed only in the candidate’s first name. They found that the candidate with the male name was viewed as more experienced and talented, more likely to get hired and to be paid more than the candidate with the female name.

Similarly, a study comparing identical resumes with either a “white”-sounding name or an “African-American-sounding”-name documented unconscious racial bias. The researchers found that the “white” names received 50 percent more callbacks for interviews, across occupations and industries.

Unconscious bias can take other forms, such as “similarity” or “affinity” bias, where people turn toward those with a similar background (individuals who attended the same college, for instance, or who grew up in the same town) or the “halo effect,” where one good thing about a person colors an opinion about all aspects of their personality – i.e., because she went to a good school, she is smart and trustworthy and deserves a promotion.

The opposite impact is known as the “horns effect,” when one negative trait (an employee was late to work one morning) impacts the perception of all characteristics about him (late to work means he is generally lazy and incompetent).

For employers, unconscious bias can limit the pool of candidates being hired and promoted, which in turn can decrease diversity, inclusivity and the growth of the company. Unconscious bias can also negatively infect the interactions between employees at a workplace.  

To combat unconscious bias, employers can begin by raising awareness and starting a conversation about the issue. A few other tweaks can help reduce the opportunity for unconscious bias to arise. Employers can consider a switch to “blind” application forms that eliminate gender, age, religion or ethnicity so that such factors are less likely to come into play for applicants.  

Another option at the hiring stage would be adding more decision makers. By getting more than one person involved in the hiring process, the chance of different opinions and perspectives could open the door to more candidates and move away from the assumptions of just one person. Widening the net when recruiting and making personnel decisions accountable (by requiring people to explain the reasoning behind rejecting a candidate or promoting one individual over another), also help.

For existing staff, employers can continue the conversation about unconscious bias and institute training. Formal mentorship relationships where the employer partners up junior employees with more senior workers – and not ad hoc mentorships, where individuals tend to seek out those with similar backgrounds – can also improve the representation of different perspectives.