Unconscious Bias: How It’s Affecting Your Workplace

by Pranav Ramesh
June 16, 2021
Diverse professionals engaged in a meeting, emphasizing inclusivity and diversity in the workplace.

2019 brought a startling revelation in the life of Chanin Kelly-Rae, a successful African American woman. After two decades of experience in the Washington State governor’s office, she took on a role as the global manager of diversity at Amazon. The corporate workplace, global presence, and influential network of the organization were alluring. But there was something wrong with the company’s culture that made Kelly-Rae quit. Kelly-Rae soon realized that Amazon had deep, systemic issues that put Black and other underrepresented communities of employees at risk. It was a shocking revelation to see that internal experts and Amazon’s leadership did not identify or fix the problem once they were made aware.

Amazon, according to Kelly-Rae, was taking steps backward when it came to its diversity and inclusion efforts. And there was no meaningful effort from the leadership team to help underrepresented employees feel welcome. In less than a year, Kelly-Rae quit the well-paying job with all its perks and status. This isn’t the first time Amazon is facing flack for failing to build a corporate-wide environment where minorities are respected.

Leaders cannot expect to build an equal opportunity workplace by simply hiring a diverse workforce. Instead, they will have to address the unlevel playing field and create an equal opportunity workplace. They should create a resilient workplace where the employees are sensitive, adaptive, and inclusive. In addition, the leaders need to work on shoring up the cultural foundation of the organization. Organizations have to focus on creating an inclusive workspace rather than emphasizing completing a diversity module. Overcoming unconscious bias and creating an inclusive workspace cannot be a once-a-year activity — it has to be an ongoing practice. We perceive a person’s characteristics based on their race, gender, religion, height, age, looks, and even hair color. This is bad, not just for society but for business too!

This affects employee morale, performance, and engagement, which in turn leads to low customer satisfaction and bad financial performance. McKinsey reported that companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity have 35% higher financial returns than the industry median. How then, can organizations embrace an inclusive culture? Is there a way to change the dialogue around diversity and make it more than just stats?

RELATED: Why It’s Necessary To Eliminate “Otherness”

Change the way you hire

Gender and racial discrimination in recruitment have been prevalent for several decades now. However, combating bias in recruitment is the first step to ensuring the workplace’s well-intentioned diversity and inclusion programs.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s “blind auditions” is probably the best-known example of an attempt to fight bias at the workplace. To reduce gender and racial discrimination in hiring, Boston Symphony’s orchestra directors held blind auditions.

The candidates had to stand behind a screen and play for a jury who could not see them until the hiring decision was made. Research suggests that this has increased the likelihood of women being recruited in orchestras by over 50% and has since been successfully adopted by numerous orchestras worldwide.Recruiters are experimenting with blind auditions across organizations. They screen candidates based on their qualifications and experience alone. The resumes and applications do not contain the name, schools, or regional background of the applicant, to prevent similarity bias. Instead, the applicants are expected to solve problems that involve skills they would use on the job.

A study by GapJumpers found a positive bias in hiring female candidates based on their performance at the audition. In fact, 69.2% of preferred candidates from blind auditions, conducted across organizations, were females. Companies can potentially hire a more diverse pool of candidates when they switch to recruitment methods that help them operate without bias. Ensuring that people are recruited for their skills is the first step to building a diverse and inclusive workplace.

Address Microaggressions

The small off-the-cuff comments that reflect our generic assumptions about people based on their identity is called microaggression. They’re almost impossible to notice on the surface. The often-innocuous comments that we tend to ignore can be perceived as an unintentional expression of bias or racism. However, due to their easy-to-miss nature, nobody acts or reports them. When microaggressions make underrepresented groups feel victimized, it could impact the entire organizational culture.

For instance, when you hire a person from an ethnic minority community to work with a group of predominantly white employees, it might give the impression that the person is just a “diversity hire.” This might lead to the new hire questioning their ability and skills at the workplace as they feel less included and more of an unspoken quota hire. While removing bias in the hiring process is the first step, the journey of an inclusive organization does not end there.

That’s just the beginning. Leaders need to understand if they are setting up their diverse hires for success once they arrive in the workplace. It is important to ensure that a person’s skills and experience are the focus of conversations rather than their ethnicity, race, or gender. When organizations use blind auditions for recruitment, it is possible to eliminate this doubt in the candidate and the team members. When everyone understands that their skill and experience earn them a seat at the table and not their race, gender, or color, they are more likely to be engaged at the workplace.

Let Everyone Have a Voice

When you hire for diversity but limit meetings to the in-groups, you could be unconsciously affecting your business and its reputation. When YouTube was launched, its video uploading platform, the developers found that around five to ten percent of the videos were uploaded upside down. The team labeled these videos as being “incorrectly” uploaded without taking into account that the phones could be used by left-handed people. When left-handed people shoot a video, they rotate the phone 180 degrees to capture the footage, and that, when uploaded online, seems upside down. So, technically from the user’s perspective, the video was shot and uploaded the right way. But a team of right-handed developers overlooked the issue and let their unconscious bias kick in. The halo effect can cause us to inflate performance ratings or in-group bias, leading us to overlook great talent.

Fighting unconscious bias could be challenging because they don’t feel wrong. But for organizations to create an inclusive culture, it is important to identify and fight the bias. There’s a pretty good chance that even the best products —just like that early YouTube app—will not work for everyone unless there’s equal representation. To achieve this, leaders have to make the unconscious conscious and act upon it! On identifying the bias in its workplace, Google implemented an organization-wide sensitivity training for its 26,000 Googlers. The series of workshops ensured that the employees were motivated to overcome bias and embrace an inclusive culture.

Equal Opportunity at Workplace

First-generation professionals, women, or people from other underrepresented communities tend to hold back their thoughts. Leaders need to consciously encourage and provide them with an opportunity to weigh in. Business meetings need to be made accessible to all the resources on the team and scheduled within the working hours. This will ensure that the business is not putting the primary caregivers and others with a demanding personal life at an unfair advantage.

It is normal for bosses to identify and engage with employees like them and share an interest. Interacting with the employees is essential. It is crucial to make sure everyone feels included and heard. White men might find it easy to approach their bosses and ask for their time or engage in drop-ins to share their ideas, but this puts the others at an unfair advantage. The onus is upon the leaders to ensure they equalize access and reach out to all the team members to ensure no subconscious barriers are dividing the teams.

Change Begins at the Leadership Level

The research found that only 3% of the women make it to the C-suite, compared with 8% of the men. This under-representation of diversity in the leadership roles could be a factor that influences the organizational-wide culture. During her time at Amazon, Kelly-Rae and many of her former colleagues strived to build an inclusive and equitable company for everyone, irrespective of their race or gender. But there’s no possibility for progress unless the company’s top leadership team doesn’t do more. Company-wide goals that the S-team sets influence the entire organizational culture. Focusing on developing an inclusive outlook may have a positive impact on the experiences of black Amazonians and those in other minority and underrepresented groups.

For that matter, Amazon, or any other company, cannot transform into a company with a level playing field for all employees if the leadership teams do not have representatives and experts in the field. Business leaders need to ensure that women, people of color, and other diversity hires have significant role models to look up to in the organization. This would inspire them to perform better, succeed, and reduce the discrimination against them significantly.

Since Kelly-Rae’s resignation and the Black Lives Matter protests, Amazon has created an exclusive group focusing on increasing its diversity hires, aiming to reduce the roadblocks for its diverse workforce. The program aims to increase job satisfaction and feelings of inclusion in their workforce irrespective of race, creed, or gender.

Building a level playing field

While the trickle-down approach drives an organization-wide change, managers can bring about a change starting with their small teams by ensuring that there’s a level playing field and an equal opportunity for all the members. A manager’s responsibility goes beyond the project deliverables. It’s important to ensure the team members have a clear outline of their potential career path. Offering on-the-job training and continuous learning will fuel the employee’s career growth, morale, and productivity. It involves giving everyone a fair review, equal opportunity for development, and mindfully assign people to high-value projects. It is important to encourage a culture of self-promotion across the organization to ensure that everyone gets an opportunity to speak of their accomplishments. This might be a challenge for people raised in a modesty mandate culture, which prompts them to hold back their thoughts or speak in a deferential way. This is generally prevalent among Asian Americans, mid-westerners, women, and employees who grew up in blue-collar families. Still, encouraging people to advocate for themselves and provide evidence for their accomplishments will ensure that the deserving employees grow in the organization. Ensure that the level playing field applies everywhere, starting from recruitment to training and promotion.

In Conclusion

An organization-wide change will not happen overnight. The unconscious bias ingrained in our systems over generations will take time to disappear. However, consistent efforts and conscious decisions to break the barriers will lead to an unbiased, diverse, and inclusive team!

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About the Company:

Peterson Technology Partners (PTP) has partnered with some of the biggest Fortune brands to offer excellence of service and best-in-class team building for the last 25 years.

PTP’s diverse and global team of recruiting, consulting, and project development experts specialize in a variety of IT competencies which include:

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Peterson Technology Partners is an equal opportunities employer. As an industry leader in IT consulting and recruitment, specializing in diversity hiring, we aim to help our clients build equitable workplaces.

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