Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

By January 13, 2020 January 16th, 2020 Newsletter

We want to thank our guest author, Kionia D. Ryant from UCP of South Carolina, for contributing to this hot-button issue, unconscious bias. We felt that this subject deserved a multi-part series where we will discuss several areas where unconscious bias tends to be present, and give you some actionable steps to identify and correct it when it goes wrong. In this month’s Connect, we will focus on hiring.

When you hear the word ‘bias,’ do you cringe, and perhaps think to yourself, “I don’t have any biases?” The truth about bias is that they are ever-present, like the beating of our hearts. We all have preferences. We are all biased in one way or another.

One definition in the Urban dictionary defines bias as: “opinions, feelings, towards a person, place or things with and without prior empirical knowledge. Bias is a result of self-formulated opinions regardless of experience with any given situation or lack thereof.”

We make judgments daily, many of which are unconscious or implicit. We meet someone new and begin receiving messages from them both verbally and non-verbally, which we interpret and use to formulate opinions. These opinions are, in most cases, judgments. Judgments or biases must be recognized, and an effort needs to be made to avoid allowing them to influence us in a way that is negative and hurtful towards others.

As was stated earlier, we all have biases. However, we don’t often acknowledge them. We will be healthier as a whole if we open up about these biases and talk about them. Ignoring our biases and prejudices keeps us from growing beyond them. When we hide or contain our bias from surfacing, we make them ‘unconscious.’ Wikipedia tells us that “unconscious biases are learned stereotypes that are automatic, unintentional, deeply ingrained, and able to influence behavior.”

Wow. So how do we recognize and change our biases in terms of the workplace?

Bias in Hiring

Imagine the following scenario.

You are hiring for an open position on your team.

As you prepare for the interviews scheduled for the day, you start by pulling the resumes and applications of the people you will be meeting. You develop the questions that you intend to ask and look at the clock only to realize the time the first interview should have begun has passed, and the candidate hasn’t arrived. Even at this point there are opportunities to trigger our biases and start us down the path of making judgments.

Let’s suppose the candidate does arrive 15 minutes late with little explanation. After the interview, you thank the candidate for coming in and begin your assessment.

As you followed the process of asking questions and getting answers, were you distracted as to why they were late? Did you perhaps wonder if they are always late? Do they have reliable transportation? Then, you may start to analyze other things about the candidate, the way they look, what they wore, and their demeanor. We all begin processing the things we see externally and analyzing what that tells us based on our own experiences.

The scenario used in this example was broad and had little detail. While you read the situation, did you begin to picture a person, male or female, of a certain race, of a certain age? The picture that you formulated may reflect your own unconscious biases.

There was no mention of the candidate’s qualifications in the scenario, and that should be the first factor in any candidate evaluation. The best way to counter our biases in hiring is to place our focus on the candidate’s ability to convey to you that he or she can do the job.

To lessen the impact of unconscious biases in your hiring decisions, here are a few pointers.

  • Make a list of the qualities that would be highly desirable for the position, such as dependability, accuracy, a particular skill, special knowledge, etc.
  • Design your interview questions to be related to the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed for the job. If the position will require a high degree of technical expertise, make sure that you ask questions that allow the candidate to demonstrate an understanding of the content, and show mastery of those required skills. When you “wing” interviews without standardized questions, there is a higher probability of making a poor hiring decision.
  • Think through where you post or advertise your open positions. You may be limiting your pool of applicants without even knowing. Consider casting a more extensive, wider net for candidates.
  • Review resumes without names or other personal information. By reviewing a resume blindly, you have a better chance of judging their skills and experience on merit alone.

Often, we rush judgment based on our own experiences when a perfectly great match for the position is packaged differently then we expect. We tend to like what is familiar, and when we limit ourselves, we are less likely to develop a more diverse, creative workplace. Being aware of how easily we can be biased in hiring allows you to take active measures to prevent it.

Stay tuned for part II, where we will focus on bias in the disciplinary process.


If you have questions about this topic or any other, please remember that customers of 501(c) Services have access to HR Services. Contact us today for help!

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