Each one of us is unequivocally affected by unconscious bias.

Even when we’ve gone to great lengths to override our biases, the unconscious brain is inclined to group entities together to create easy associations in our minds. Our subconscious categorizations inform our perspectives and inclinations, affecting how we perceive race, gender, appearance, age, financial status, and more. Informed by our individual cultural and societal experiences, our unconscious biases cloud our judgment of people by affecting how we perceive and interact with others.

Our snap judgments of people affect our daily thoughts and reactions, along with our opinions and decisions, often without our awareness. These preconceived notions are persistently pervasive within our spheres, including the workplace.

The challenges for women and minorities in the workplace

Despite the progress being made in terms of workplace equality, women and minorities are still overwhelmingly underrepresented and misrepresented in the workforce and in positions of leadership, which is reflected in the disparities in performance ratings and pay.

At work, women must walk the line between likeability and competence, having to choose between being liked, but not respected, or being respected, but not liked, as being both is nearly unattainable. Whereas their male counterparts are evaluated on their potential, female employees are judged on their past performance, which means they consistently need to perform better than men in order to be seen as competent and equal.

Similarly, employees of minority ethnicities have to face an uphill battle of having to constantly prove their worth to prove that they are not merely filling a diversity gap, but have a rightful place due to their skills and abilities.

If these double standards endured by women and minorities are left unchecked, these valuable members of your workforce will continue to be unfairly excluded from the experiences and opportunities for which they are qualified.

What can organizations do to counteract these quick judgments, mitigate short-sighted decisions made as a result of unconscious bias, and make your people feel recognized and included?

In talent recruitment

Unconscious bias can affect who HR chooses to hire. Our choices in communication can be an enabler of hiring decisions, creating unintentional barriers and perpetuating the status quo. If we are not cognizant of our language usage, we can limit gender and racial diversity in the workforce, beginning from hiring and affecting assessments and management as well.

To engage a broader range of candidates in hiring and normalize employees and leaders of different backgrounds in the workplace, it is integral to be mindful of how your company is communicating and how that affects the people you exclude and include.

Use inclusive language in recruitment material

Biased language is rampant in recruiting collateral. With job postings, employ the usage of gender neutral language to attract the consideration of diverse candidates. Forbes reports that word choices such as “supportive,” “collaborative,” and “committed” will appeal more to female applicants, while words like “competitive” and “dominate” will peak the interest of male applicants. To avoid an abundance of gendered language, simply re-read and revise your job postings and choose your adjectives with inclusivity in mind.

Additionally, separating “must-have” skills from “nice-to-have” skills in your list of qualifications can help attract a more diverse candidate pool, as research also shows women often don’t apply unless they feel they are fully qualified.

Question snap judgments in candidate screening

When reviewing application packages from candidates, take your gut feelings and root them in logical, evidence-based information. What is it that caused you to pass over that applicant? Was your decision related to the person’s qualifications in the resume, or did their use of language in their cover letter trigger something that caused you to make a stereotyped assumption about their fit for the role?

In people management

Unconscious bias can affect how HR manages their people, supports (or does not support) their development, and evaluates their performance.

Check preconceived stereotypes

Whether we realize it or not, unconscious stereotypes shape our perceptions of an employee’s capability. For example, numerous studies found that men and women are assessed differently in the workplace, with female employees being held to a higher standard than their male counterparts. Women’s accomplishments are more likely to be viewed as a team effort rather than an individual one, and they receive harsher criticism for behaviours deemed ‘aggressive’.

The risk with this common gendered assumption is that if managers expect women to be team-oriented, female employees may be pushed into supporting roles rather than being encouraged to pursue management and executive positions. When these hidden biases are internalized, over time it can lead to women having even more decreased access to leadership roles within their company.

Avoid the common work biases of affinity, where you perceive your people as being part of a group (‘one of them’ and ‘like them’) and instead see people for who they are and what skills they bring as an individual, and treat each team member with acceptance and inclusivity.

Challenge perceived barriers

In our management and evaluation of our team members, we must ask whether apparent obstacles to performance are real or perceived. Do you believe an employee assessment would be the same if the individual in question had a different gender or race? If you can say “yes,” or you admit to being unsure of the answer, this is an important step toward uncovering hidden bias.

Over to you

To get to a future workplace where diversity is the norm, we need to acknowledge how susceptible we are to unconscious bias (despite our best intentions) and make it a practice to continuously question the thinking behind our decision making to build awareness of how and when bias is sneaking in to the process. For change to happen, we must be willing to explore methods that help eliminate bias in people management and lead the way in meaningful progress towards greater organizational diversity in our places of work.

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