3 Ways Unconscious Bias Affects Your Workplace

Don't let unconscious bias about working mothers color your judgment about promotions, business travel, and raises,
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You are not racist or sexist. You make sure that you consider only knowledge, skills, and abilities when you’re making your hiring decisions. You are an equal opportunity employer. And yet, you still have unconscious biases.

Don’t worry. All people do. Your brain looks at occurrences in the past and makes snap judgments for you without your having to think about them. That’s why the bias is unconscious. It takes concentration and effort to not allow your unconscious mind to become sucked in by bias.

Because your brain is conscious and makes decisions based on past experience, you may think this is okay. And often it can be. There are real differences between engineers and marketers, so it makes sense that you might offer something to the engineers and not the marketers, based on your past interactions. And most likely, you’re right. 

But, you have to make sure that you don’t fall into the trap of thinking, "Because more people in group A like this, all people in group A like this.” That’s where your unconscious bias gets you in trouble.

Here are three ways in which unconscious bias is affecting your workplace.

Which Employee Is Asked to Travel for Business?

Bill and Jane are both IT consultants. Jane is married with two children. Bill is single. A client needs a complex problem handled, on-site, a plane ride away. It will take three weeks to do this project during which time the employee will only come home on weekends.

This project is a great opportunity for an employee to showcase their skills and will position whoever participates in this project for a promotion in the near future. Who do you ask to take on the project?

Do you ask Bill because Jane won’t want to travel? Mothers of young children don’t want to go on long business trips, right? Statistically, your feelings about mothers may be right, but you’re not dealing with statistics. You’re dealing with humans.

You don’t know if Jane wants to travel to perform the showcase project unless you ask her. You need to make your selection based on who you believe is most qualified and best suited for the role. You must make this decision regardless of the gender or parenthood status of the employee. If the person you selected doesn’t want to go, he or she will tell you. They deserve the chance to make that decision.

Unconscious bias is not just about this one trip—it’s decisions and opportunities like this that can make or break your employee’s career. Your unconscious bias can impact Jane’s career negatively.

Who Needs to Receive a Raise?

Traditionally, men are thought of as the breadwinners in the family, so of course men need to make more money. Does that thought run through your head when you consider giving out raises? Is the thought (bias) in the back of your brain somewhere? If so, this unconscious bias affects what you think is an appropriate raise for your employees.

Pay should have nothing to do with what an employee’s financial obligations are—only with what the employee contributes to the business. The same issue is in play if you are paying a single mother more money because you believe she needs it. You may feel compassionate, but it’s illegal to pay an employee more because of their gender, whether the employee is male or female.

Of course, the unconscious bias isn’t limited to the actual pay when it comes to a raise. If your unconscious bias is that women who are straightforward are pushy and men who are straightforward are confident doers, then you’re more likely to reward the man for the same behavior for which you’re punishing his female colleagues. It’s that ugly unconscious bias showing up again.

How Do You Decide Who Gets the Promotion?

Women make great kindergarten teachers, but lousy principals superficially. 76 percent of teachers are female, but only 52 percent of principals. Is this due to choice—women are choosing to stay in teaching roles and men are choosing to work towards a promotion to principal? Or is this difference due to the unconscious bias of the decision makers?

Make sure you sit down and think when you’re promoting an employee and deciding among candidates. Are you looking at skills? Are you looking at dedication? Are you looking at past contributions? Or are you letting your feelings from your previous experiences influence your decision making?

This doesn’t apply just along racial and gender lines but also applies along many other issues. You were bullied by a kid named Kevin and so Kevin in your office just rubs you the wrong way and you can’t figure out why. It’s your unconscious bias peeking through.

How to Fix Your Unconscious Bias

You can take unconscious bias tests, but they won’t fix the problem—they just let you know that the problem exists. And the test won’t address any issue that isn’t along gender, racial, or cultural lines. In other words, the test won’t indicate that you are biased against people named Kevin.

 But, what you can do is flip the question around to test it. HR executive Kristen Pressner created this simple test: flip it to test it. If you think it’s okay to say, “We promote women at a higher rate than our competitors,” flip the statement around and say, “We promote men at a higher rate than our competitors.” You will quickly see that your original statement is biased.

Another fix for unconscious bias is to write out your reasoning for your decision. Just exactly why are you asking Bill but not Jane to take on the big travel project? Why are you promoting this person over that person? If you’re not willing to stand up in court and read this list of reasons, you’re probably making the wrong decision for the wrong reasons.

Unconscious bias will always exist in people making decisions in the workplace, but they can work hard to become aware of their unconscious bias and overcome it.