There are two general types of bias – conscious and unconscious. In the case of conscious or explicit bias, the person is clear about preference and their intent. It is declared. Unconscious or implicit bias is done in direct contradiction to a person’s beliefs. Researchers and behaviorists began researching unconscious bias in 1995 and became a novel concept in 2006 when it was introduced as “the new science of unconscious mental processes that has a substantial bearing on discrimination law,” and refuted beliefs that we guide by our conscious intentions alone. While employment law, a company’s values and employee conduct codes deter explicit bias, employers have come to see unconscious bias, especially within hiring, problematic and a detriment to building a diverse and inclusive workplace.
Understanding Unconscious Bias
Our brains are wired to be efficient in decision making. Its requirement considering our brains receive 11 million bits of information each second and yet our conscious minds can only handle 40 to 50 bits. According to behavioral and data scientist Pragya Agarwal, author of Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias our brains take “cognitive shortcuts” to make decision making easier, more efficient. These decisions are based on information we have picked up throughout our lives – from school, our family, media, and experiences. It’s what many people call, “following their gut.” Pragya argues that this is the basis for unconscious bias, and it is hardwired into our thinking.
How Unconscious Bias Harms the Hiring Process
We can be both a victim of unconscious bias and turn around and do it to others. There have been numerous studies of how implicit bias informs hiring decisions to the detriment of others – a Duke University study showed those with “mature” faces had a career advantage over those with “baby” faces (large, round eyes, high eyebrows, and small chin). A Yale University study found that male and female scientists (who are trained to reject the subjective!) were more likely to hire men, rank them higher in competency than women, and pay them $4,000 more per year than women. Another widely referenced case of bias is based on a person’s name and presumed race. For this study, researchers from MIT and the University of Chicago sent thousands of identical resumes to employers with job openings. They randomly used stereotypical African American names on some and stereotypical white names on others. At that time roughly 50 percent were more likely to result in a call back if it had a “white” name.
Even when we say that we are open-minded, value diversity, and not prejudiced, it is clear these biases can still play a role in our decision making. This is why we need to examine our biases and be mindful of our hidden prejudices and the way they manifest themselves in words and actions.
We know that bias can change. For example, In 1937 only 33% of Americans believed that a qualified woman could be president; in 2015, 92% endorsed the possibility. So how do we address unconscious bias that lies under the surface, influencing our workplace culture? Bias training, especially amongst recruiters and hiring managers, can be an important first step.
To address unconscious bias, you first must acknowledge it exists and for people to understand their hidden biases so that the individual can get the most out of their training. The training itself can then take many forms: Mindful Leadership Training for managers, lunch and learns with Diversity & Inclusion consultants, a comprehensive sexual harassment training that includes gender and sexual orientation discussions, and utilizing tools to better understand the individual employee work behaviors (like Predictive Index) are just a few examples.
Finally, you will want to measure the effectiveness of your training, which will not solely be accomplished by a survey of whether participants found the exercise useful or enlightening. In addition, tracking key metrics within your talent acquisition lifecycle (i.e., applicants, interviews, hires, retention, and promotions), improvements in employee and candidate perceptions of the culture (by taking surveys), measure inclusivity and diversity (throughout the full talent lifecycle: recruitment, promotions, leadership representations), and track a decline in counterproductive work behaviors (complaints, etc.).
Understanding bias and reckoning with its effects is an important step in creating a more diverse and inclusive workplace. No one is immune to bias, therefore it is something that we can all work on individually and together as organizations. Leaders must consider how they will shape their organizational cultures so that they begin changing future generations’ perceptions of stereotypes and norms that form biases.