Is Your Bias Showing?

How to spot and change unconscious bias in the workplace

By Ron Price and Stacy Ennis

Unconscious bias matters. Greatly. Not just for the people on the receiving end of bias, but also for the leaders, teams and companies who are missing out on a team that is diversified through age, race, gender and other factors.

Where is the diversity?
During a session at a recent leadership training afternoon that was focused on hiring practices, the presenter spent the better part of an hour laying out his strategies for attracting and retaining top talent. These processes, he said, were effective beyond his company. They were attractive: online forms, spreadsheets, detailed reports, company transparency - all the latest and greatest in finding and keeping the best of the best.

Then he pulled up a slide.

The slide contained an organizational chart with about 30 employees. Rather than just names, it also included faces. The trouble was, nearly everyone in the company looked alike. It was like a carbon copy of the same person with slightly different smiles and hair colours. With some exceptions, nearly everyone was the same gender and about the same age.

He went on to explain how his process vets through several layers and has steps and stages for every potential hire, plus onboarding and technology that encourages collaboration post-hire. Was this process fostering diversity? The answer, plainly, was no.

Wired for bias
Like many of us, this presenter was dealing with unconscious bias, also known as implicit bias. The company's practices were clearly favouring recruitment, hiring and retention of a specific group of people - preferring one set of individuals with certain qualities (gender and age range) over others.

The fact is, our brains are wired for this sort of thing. We've all seen the studies: men are more likely to consider male candidates more qualified, want to hire other men, give those mean a higher salary than women and are willing to invest in those men. We also know age-based stereotyping is prevalent in the workplace; one group of researchers call such biases the "silent killer of collaborations and productivity.

While it's normal to think, "Well, that's not me," science says otherwise.

In one study, MRI scans showed that when we're confronted with someone who is different than us (in this study, a different race), the amygdala - known as the emotional processing centre of the brain that deals with fears, threats and more - lights up. The frontal cortex, which is involved in "forming impressions of others and in measuring empathy," also lights up, leading toward unconscious decision-making.

We are all wired for unconscious bias - even those who are dedicated to equality. Without even realizing it we're making judgments about others, which are influencing our decisions. At work, this plays out in hiring, promoting, mentoring and much more.

Bias and the bottom line
Research also tells us that "being around people who are different from us makes us more creative, more diligent and harder-working," This is, in part, because our brains have to work a little harder.

When someone presents a fresh viewpoint - or even a similar viewpoint from a different lens - we tend to pay closer attention. Diversity disrupts intellectual autopilot and causes us to be more engaged and aware.

Also, diversity is good for the bottom line. According to a study by McKinsey, companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have above-average financial returns. A study by the University of California, Davis, found that "among the 25 firms with the highest percentage of women executives and board members, researchers found that median returns on assets and equity in 2015 were at least 74 percent higher than among the overall group of companies surveyed."

There are also exciting opportunities for mentorship across generations. Findings from one study show that 96 percent of Millennials believe "Boomers bring substantial experience and knowledge to the workplace." Likewise, 90 percent of Boomers believe "Millennials bring new skills and ideas to the workplace."

Awareness and action for change
If we're wired for bias, how do we change? First, continue learning about unconscious bias and watch for it in yourself and within your teams.

Second, measure. If in a leadership position, take an honest look at your company's organization chart. Do you see much of the same? Don't be fooled by a few diverse employees peppered throughout - objectively analyze the employee base.

Third, set real metrics. Aim not just for a "more diverse workplace," or "more women and people of colour on the board." Instead, set measurable goals like 50 percent women and 50 percent non-white. When real numbers are attached to the goals, you'll be amazed at your team's ability to find solutions and create best practices to get your company closer to those goals.

Fourth and finally, check in with yourself. Do you notice that you listen more to the people on your team who are like you? Do you find yourself mentally dismissing opinions that don't validate your own? Awareness needs to be paired with action. Invite people who aren't like you to contribute; give opportunities to someone who is deserving, but maybe wasn't your first pick; and encourage others on your team to seek out and foster divergent thinking rather than falling into group think.

We may be wired for bias, but we aren't destined for it. There is a brighter, more diverse, more creative and more effective workforce ahead. It's up to us to make it happen.

This blog originally appeared in Piling Canada.