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How Biases Can Influence Workplace Decisions and Interactions

There is mounting research by social scientists and psychologists which confirms that as humans we all have biases. However, we never know we have them. Being biased is how we navigate our way through life experiences.

Psychologist Joseph LeDoux has referred to “bias as an unconscious ‘danger detector’ that determines the safety of a person or situation before we have a chance to cognitively consider it. We have learned through evolution that making those determinations quickly could save our lives.”

According to Horace McCormick in The Real Effects of Unconscious Bias in the Workplace, “Unconscious biases in the workplace can stymie diversity, recruiting and retention efforts, and unknowingly shape an organization’s culture. Unconscious bias can skew talent and performance reviews. It affects who gets hired, promoted, and developed—and this unwittingly undermines an organization’s culture. HR and talent management professionals must ask the question, ‘To what extent are our organizational culture and business results being affected by unconscious bias?’”

Studies have shown that seemingly good people who see themselves as liberal on issues such as gender, race, religion, age, class, economic status, may hold hidden or unconscious biases on these social justice issues in our workplaces and communities.

Our sense of the other may result from stereotypes, judgments, our social conditioning, belief systems, our educational institutions, values, the media and our environment generally.

They are often bound up in our experiences and encounters with individuals who are different or do not conform to the normal societal concept of who they think individuals ought to be. As humans, we are having to manage complex situations quickly and our brains put them into categories so we can determine how these categories fit into our background, our experience of the past and present.

The perceptions we hold of others show up in our everyday experiences and how we treat individuals we encounter who are different.

Negative attitudes may have a significant impact on decision making and how we respond to certain individuals who are not in our group. Many of us may harbour feelings towards certain groups of people without realizing it. For example, our perceptions about persons with disabilities, those identifying as LGBTQ2S+, Muslims, Jewish, immigrants or generational differences. This may prevent leaders from giving someone a job, including them at the decision-making table, getting promoted or given a fair performance appraisal.

The important thing is that people do not need to feel guilty about these issues, nor seek to justify or be defensive. Once individuals have the awareness and understand that everyone has a bias, then they need to take responsibility and learn how to identify them and develop practices and tools on how to address them.

Several tools have been established and supported by research over the years to address unconscious biases.

The Implicit Association Test (IAT), created by psychologists Anthony Greenwald of the Washington University, Mahzarin Banaji of Harvard University, and Brian Nosek of the University of Virginia is one of the most popular tools used to help challenge our thinking on biases. This is an online tool which is easily accessible (https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/canada/takeatest.html).

Leaders need to recognize that unconscious or hidden biases can influence all the decisions made at the highest level in the organization on a daily basis. If individuals do not recognize these biases, then they can do irreparable harm in the decisions and choices made in the workplace.

There are a few well known biases that directly impact our everyday experiences and influences our decisions in the workplace. There are Confirmation Bias, Affinity, Halo Bias, Perception and Group Think Bias.

Here are some tips for leaders and employees that can be used immediately.

  • Build trusting and meaningful relationships with people who do not belong to your social circle or in-group. This takes time.
  • Develop a sense of awareness about your personal biases and how they might influence your daily decision making in the workplace or the activities you might be involved with in your community.
  • Leaders must make a commitment and a concerted effort to engage with people from different cultures and backgrounds.
  • Check your own biases. Ask yourself the difficult question about why you may dislike a particular group of people.
  • Examine recruitment data and check for patterns of concealed biases. People often choose individuals that they might have some affinity with.
  • Updating policies are critical to changing attitudes and championing inclusivity in organizations. Those practices that could be perceived as gender, age, religion bias, or discriminating against those with mental health issues in the workplace, need to be addressed. Each employee may self-identify in what is regarded as a ‘unconventional’ category and that has to be respected.
  • Talk with current employees, particularly women and minorities, to ask them what unconscious biases they have witnessed in the organization and the effects these have had on their own careers, researcher Howard Ross writes in Exploring Unconscious Bias. Diversity Best Practices.
  • Survey former employees to learn what issues they faced during their employment and what steps could be taken that would entice them to return, according to Ross.
  • Leaders must take responsibility for decisions taken in the organization that may have harmed or hurt an employee.
  • A leader should create opportunities to learn from their employees, especially those from diverse backgrounds. This could be richly rewarding for the organization.
  • Authenticity and integrity are vital for every person when addressing unconscious bias and decision making. Checking your attitudes: Inviting trusted friends and colleagues to “call you out” when bias is expressed.

Once a decision has been made to engage a person from a diverse background, their onboarding must be given careful consideration. They must be given full orientation into the organization. Most organizations have unwritten rules about “the way we do things around here.” To avoid assumptions and judgments, the organization must make every effort to inform existing employees about the recruitment, their culture or identity in a positive manner which would be seen as an advantage to the organization.

Every organization is unique and may experience unconscious bias differently but ought to be done respectfully and that values differences.

About Ann Divine

Ann Divine
Ann Divine, founder and CEO of Ashanti Leadership and Professional Development Services. Her consultancy provides extensive services in Leadership Development, Cultural and Organizational Change Management through Diversity and Inclusion lens.

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