The Impact of Biases and How to Prevent Their Interference in the Workplace

April 27, 2017
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If you have ever been selected for jury duty, you may recall attorneys barraging you with questions during the voir dire process. This is when the case attorneys ask potential jurors specific questions to determine if they are capable of rendering an impartial verdict. For example, if the case involves an alleged drunk driver, attorneys might ask potential jurors whether they were ever arrested for drunk driving or whether they have a loved one who was injured by a drunk driver. These questions are designed to uncover any biases among jurors.

Without being aware of it, we all have biases that affect how we view the world. Such biases can potentially cause us to make decisions that are neither wise nor fair. But do they make us bad people? Absolutely not. It simply means we are human beings, influenced by our life experiences and those around us. We are conditioned by the movies and television programs we watch and the books and articles we read, as well as by the social media and gatherings in which we participate and the people we surround ourselves with. We have different perspectives based on our race, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, nationality, and a whole array of other factors.

Fortunately, we can be proactive in addressing and reducing our biases.

Becoming Aware of Biases
In order to address our biases, we must first identify them. However, most people are unaware of those they have toward or against certain groups. Fortunately, there is a free online assessment that measures which unconscious biases you may have based on categories such as skin tone, race, weight, gender, disability, and Arab-Muslim background. Harvard University researchers — who were investigating implicit social cognition — created the Implicit Association Test. Individual tests are available online at implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html.

Once you are aware of any biases you harbor, you have the power to change your way of thinking. Start by learning about the group, or groups, you have a bias against. Make an effort to engage with members of that group. Spend time with them and genuinely get to know them. But remember, you need to experience these people as individuals, not as representatives of a group. You will eventually realize that your previous assumptions about them were false or do not apply to each member of this population.

Another helpful technique in overcoming biases is practicing mindfulness: Simply be aware when you have a biased thought. Pay attention to what you are thinking. Take it a step further by asking yourself why you are having this thought about this person. Thought awareness can help you eliminate negative thinking and replace it with positive imagery.

Preventing Bias in the Workplace
Biased tendencies can also affect our professional lives. They can influence actions and decisions such as whom we hire or promote, how we interact with persons of a particular group, what advice we consider, and how we conduct performance evaluations. Biases can also cause us to make discriminatory decisions regarding a protected class, which can result in complaints of discrimination being filed against the company or institution. And, if a federal agency such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) finds the complaint to have merit, the company could be forced to pay a financial settlement — but the ramifications don’t end there. Such a situation could ultimately result in decreased profits, reduced employee morale, lost productivity, negative press, and employee turnover.

Again, bias awareness can help you make fair business decisions. Consider this example: Pretend you are an alumna of Harvard University and, as such, tend to believe that Harvard graduates are more intelligent. You are responsible for filling a position and are conducting final interviews. You have identified two final candidates: One went to Harvard, while the other attended a less prestigious university. Fortunately, you are aware of your bias and remind yourself that your job is to make the best hiring decision based solely on qualifications. To prohibit your personal preferences regarding educational background from influencing your decision, carefully review both candidates’ qualifications, writing down the concrete reasons that one candidate is more qualified than the other.

It is essential for all organizations — universities, publicly and privately held companies, and government entities — to communicate the importance of treating all employees, applicants, customers, and students with respect and fairness — from the top down.

Another way to guarantee bias-free decisions is to invite colleagues to participate in the selection process. Ideally, a panel of diverse people would be involved in the hiring process, increasing the likelihood of your making the fairest decision.

It is essential for all organizations — universities, publicly and privately held companies, and government entities — to communicate the importance of treating all employees, applicants, customers, and students with respect and fairness — from the top down. Often, cases brought forth by the EEOC and other equal opportunity agencies involve complaints of harassment or discrimination that are perpetrated by people in top management positions. When leadership figures treat people disrespectfully or behave differently toward people due to their gender, age, or skin color, they send a message that reverberates throughout the organization that discriminatory behavior is acceptable.

On the other hand, if your leadership team consists of champions for diversity and inclusion — who are role models not only in the office, but outside of it as well — the rest of the organization is likely to follow the example they have set of treating people with respect and fairness. Create a healthier workplace by establishing firm anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies that clearly define consequences for violations. Frequent employee training to reinforce understanding of and a commitment to these policies will reduce the likelihood of personal biases and prejudices negatively affecting the way people are treated in the workplace.

In higher education work environments, employees are more likely to interact with people of various ethnicities, nationalities, religious beliefs, and socioeconomic backgrounds. For individuals who grew up in isolated areas where they may not have been exposed to diverse and underrepresented groups, this lack of exposure could potentially cause some initial challenges. In these situations, it is still imperative to focus on treating everyone with respect. This requires realizing that everyone’s views — no matter how different they may be from your own — have merit.

By becoming aware of your biases, practicing mindful thinking, and treating each individual with respect, you can evolve beyond your biases and engage with all people in a positive manner in any environment.●

Julia Méndez, CDP, CELS, PHR, CAAP, is the principal business consultant at PeopleFluent. She is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board.