Have you ever found yourself favouring one person over another just because of how they look? Or more inclined to make friends with someone because they are more like you or from the same community as you?
Yes, these are biases, and whether we are aware of them or not, every human being has some form of them. Biases are complex beliefs that originate deep in our psyche, which is one of the main reasons we often do not know we have them. Unfortunately, this is also why it is incredibly challenging to overcome them.
But biases are not just restricted to our personal lives; they can also creep into our professional lives. In fact, companies have realised how human biases can be harmful and restrictive, which can prove costly and hurt organisational growth. This is why many companies are now trying to use psychology and behavioural sciences insights to de-bias their work arenas.
But to understand how biases operate in the professional space, we need first to understand what biases are.
What are Biases?
A bias is defined as a tendency, inclination, or prejudice toward or against something or someone. It can be psychological, sociological, or even physiological.
The tricky part is we may not be aware of our biases as they are subconscious and operate outside our logical thinking and reasoning. Therefore, they can influence how we process information, strategise them, and make decisions. And this is one of the key reasons why while we may see biases in others, we may believe that we personally do not have them.
Not all biases are harmful; they can also be positive. But when negative biases go unrecognised and unchecked, they can lead to bad decisions both in one’s personal and professional life.
How Biases Affect Organisations and Work Culture
Automatic biases or stereotypes are enormous contributors to a lack of workplace diversity and even unfair behaviour or practices. This is obviously not healthy for the culture of any organisation.
But unfortunately, there is no magic formula or ready solution when it comes to de-biasing in an organisational context, and hence companies struggle to accomplish this. Nevertheless, even small efforts can be effective and make a difference.
The key is for organisations to go about it step by step, decision by decision, and stage by stage, identifying the existing biases and the actions that will reduce or eliminate them.
There are many places and stages in an organisation where biases hide in plain sight. Let’s take the examples of hiring and promotion and see how biases can creep into these processes and how they can be minimised.
1. Hiring processes
Hiring is crucial for any company and an integral part of its growth.
Studies have shown that organisations with an ethnically diverse workforce are 35 per cent more likely to perform above their respective national industry medians. And gender diversity enables companies to perform 15% above the median. Therefore, it is in the organisation’s best interest to select the best-suited candidate for the job and to have a diverse workforce.
However, hiring the wrong person can lead to early employee turnover costing the company a lot of money. Not just that, biased hiring can also bring the company legal problems.
But where do biases creep in?
In the case of hiring, unconscious bias can occur when the person hiring forms an opinion about candidates based solely on first impressions. Or when one candidate is preferred over the next simply because the person in charge can relate to them.
Even early in the hiring process, a candidate’s picture, name, or even their hometown could influence the hiring manager’s opinion. Simply put, unconscious biases can influence their choice, causing them to base their decisions on criteria that are irrelevant to the job or the skills required.
So, as we can see, unconscious bias can prevent companies from hiring diverse employees and hinder overall productivity, which is why it has to be eliminated from hiring processes.
How to Tackle Hiring Biases
Awareness is always the first step to tackling any problem.
Training and open conversations around biases in the hiring process can help bring to light prejudices and trigger solutions to tackle them. Therefore, it is crucial for companies to understand where they arise, how they operate, and their detrimental effects on the culture. In addition, open conversations also help employees recognise, understand and confront their own biases.
However, although awareness is essential, it is not enough to eliminate biases. Biases need to be actively dealt with.
Let’s look at some other practical ways companies can minimise bias in the hiring process.
a. Gender-neutral job descriptions
Job listings are the first impression candidates will get of an organisation and are a great place to start.
The number one culprit in job descriptions is biased language. For example, using masculine adjectives like “competitive” and “aggressive” in a job description would draw more males than females as compared to words like “teamwork” and “collaboration” which tends to attract women and men alike.
Therefore, words in a job description matter. Consequently, they should be gender-neutral to draw an unbiased pool of candidates. Companies can even use software programmes to ensure that their job descriptions are neutral.
b. Focus on qualifications
Instead of focussing on ethnicity, gender, and demographics, hiring managers should focus on the candidate’s specific qualifications and talents. They should objectively look at what each candidate brings to the table.
So, companies can use a blind, systematic process for reviewing applications and résumés to improve their chances of including the most relevant candidates in their interview pool and uncover some incredible talent. This can also be done with the help of software.
c. Candidate testing
A work sample is always a good way to understand a candidate’s abilities and a good indicator of future job performance.
Comparing how each candidate has fared on the same test and picking the best out of the bunch can help give insights on candidate skills, quality of work, and how they will solve problems going ahead.
This is a more reliable way for a company to hire versus the hiring manager unconsciously judging them based on their appearance, gender, age, and even personality.
d. Structured interviews
Companies should use structured interviews in their hiring process.
The reason for this is that it is easier to compare the answers of the same set of predefined questions than random, unstructured questions, as these are often unreliable for predicting job success.
A standardised interview process helps minimise bias by allowing employers to focus on the factors that truly matter and can indicate future performance.
2. Promotion processes
As we have seen, personal bias can unconsciously impact hiring decisions. Similarly, they can also influence decisions about promotions. Therefore, organisations have to be extra careful to give all their employees due credit without being influenced by bias.
Biases spare no one. Even leaders with years of experience are susceptible to making promotion decisions based on subjective criteria and ignoring data that does not support what they personally feel. Leaders can overestimate the talents of people they know well or whom they like and underestimate or reject those they are unfamiliar with.
Here are some best practices that companies can use to minimise bias in their internal promotion strategy
a. Keep merit in mind
Tenure-based promotions have always been the norm. However, merit-based promotions are now gaining popularity. Nevertheless, bias can still creep into the equation. To minimise this, companies should:
- Consider performance reviews
- Create a structured review system with clear objectives and goals
- Communicate these goals to employees so that they know what is expected of them if they want a promotion
b. Base decisions on data
Promotions should never be based on personal opinion.
One reliable way companies can decide if a candidate is deserving of a promotion is to use data and performance analytics to track merit and analyse promotion decisions. Studies show that organisations that use a data-driven approach to select their top candidates have achieved a 30% higher profitability.
This will help companies minimise biases and encourage employees to perform to the best of their abilities consistently instead of simply performing outstandingly just as it comes time for the promotion.
A data-based promotion also enables companies to tap proven talent from unexpected places, leading to better business outcomes.
A few more thoughts on biases in the professional arena
The above are just two examples of the numerous biases that exist in organisations.
However, to root out as much bias as possible, companies need to go about it systematically. It would also require them to formalise the decision-making processes so that they are strictly adhered to.
However, it is not as simple as it sounds. It requires a commitment as well as a cultural change within the organisation—one that emphasises values of equality and fairness.
Here are a few more things companies can do to de-bias their work arena:
a. Understand and Recognise
Every employee in an organisation is important; it does not matter if they are the janitor or the CEO or whether they have a different ethnicity, culture, background or even sexual orientation. Each has an important role to perform.
Hence, management needs to take the time to understand the different people in the organisation – what is important to them and how they think.
Looking at issues from different viewpoints can help generate the passion to drive change and work towards a bias-free culture.
It is great for organisations to be noble and speak about mitigating biases. However, biases do not just fade away with awareness; they need to be actively dealt with.
Commitment is necessary to truly tackle bias. Ideas must be changed, systems overhauled, and processes systematically fine-combed.
Also, any decisions taken need to be based on logic, and the best way to do this is to stick to facts, figures and performance.
c. Encourage outspokenness
It is often awkward to take a stand on inappropriate behaviour, but at the same time, it is absolutely necessary.
Companies should support the employees who have the courage to take a stand and speak up against unfair behaviour and practices so that even more employees will be motivated to do the same- especially if they are in leadership positions. If unacceptable behaviour is not addressed immediately, it leads to a lax attitude and indicates that it is acceptable.
Every employee in the organisation should feel empowered to uphold workplace equality; however, if they do not see the same in the leadership’s behaviour and attitude, the initiative will never get off the ground.
The bottom line is that unchecked biased and offensive behaviour in the workplace has the potential to spread through the organisation and erode culture and employee participation. This will take a toll on organisational effectiveness, diversity, recruiting, promotion, and retention in the long run. Also, if left unchecked, biases can shape a company or even an entire industry’s culture and norms.
Today, although many organisations know they have biased processes and a lot has been said about diversity and prejudices in the workplace, it continues to be an uncomfortable discussion.
But the fact of the matter is -uncomfortable or not- that it is crucial for companies to commit to de-biasing their work arenas as a diverse and inclusive culture will ultimately give them a competitive advantage and contribute to their profitability and growth.
And now it is your turn. Do you know effective ways to root out biases from organisational systems and processes? If you do, we would love to hear from you! Leave us a comment!