Unconscious bias in the workplace

West HR Bias Blog

Our brains make decisions and judgements with incredible speed. We’re hard-wired by personal experience, societal influences and even context to make decisions about people based on their appearance. During a recruitment and selection process, promotion decisions and when giving access to training these decisions or judgements can occur without us even being aware of it. When this occurs, it’s known as unconscious bias. Below are just a few examples of these split-second judgements.

Beauty Bias

It’s easy to make assumptions about a person’s personality based upon their appearance. Assumptions might be made about a neatly-dressed person being more organised and capable than someone who apparently makes less of an effort. Or a person’s short stature, poor posture and lack of expressions may seem less attractive to an interviewer than other equally qualified candidates who are taller, have good posture and are expressive.

The ‘halo effect’ also falls under this heading because it occurs when a positive trait is imagined in a person simply because of an assumption of ability, based on a pleasing aspect of their appearance, without any actual evidence of the positive trait.

Conformity bias

This is when an individual’s opinion can be swayed or even overruled by the knowledge that their colleagues were presented with the same question as the individual, and they all reached the same conclusion – which was different to the individual’s own conclusion. When presented with this information, up to 75% of individuals in the type of test situation called the Asch Paradigm changed their minds to conform with the group even though the group-conformity was contrary their own judgement.

Age Bias

The selection or ruling-out of candidates based on age is a treacherous method of recruitment. The Equality Act (2010) prohibits any discrimination against employees or job seekers based on their age. The ACAS guide on age and the workplace sheds more light on the dos and don’ts surrounding ageism during recruitment and employment.

Gender Bias

We tend to think that men are better engineering jobs and women are better at nursing jobs. Based on these stereotypes, men are more likely to be sought for engineering roles and women are more likely to be sought for nursing roles. Over time the stereotype becomes self-reinforcing, unless a conscious decision is made to recruit based on ability rather than gender. A balanced candidate pool can go some way to rectifying a gender bias, as can the inclusion of a member of staff on the candidate selection panel who is of the same gender as under-represented applicants.

Affinity Bias

When we meet or interview someone who shares a common interest, or attended the same school, or lived in the same village, we automatically develop an affinity bias. As a result of having something in common we’re more likely to encourage or favour, or have a higher perception of a candidate with whom an affinity is shared, than a candidate who had no shared interests.

Contextual Bias

Context can play a significant role during short-listing or interviews. During a recruitment process, if applicant short-listing questions are contextually set in an environment that would be most familiar to a male, white middle-class applicant, the bias can be seen to favour that type of applicant more than other applicants from different backgrounds.

Unconscious bias is unintended and often happens without our knowledge. It is automatic and natural and if unchecked it can adversely affect our decisions, but it can be mitigated or controlled.

For expert advice on improving the diversity of your workforce and the prevention of recruitment biases, please feel free to contact us.

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