Hidden Bias in the Workplace Series: An Overview

Hidden Bias graphic

Workplace bias takes many forms, but the result is always the same—exclusion of members of the workforce from experiences and opportunities for which they are qualified. This is the first post in a series that will walk through addressing hidden biases in the workplace. We will start with identifying biases, move on to hidden biases in recruiting, selection and interviewing processes, following up with retention strategies, and ending with evaluation and sustaining diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies and efforts. 

We all have biases. We ALL do. We are often tricked into thinking that we are much more rational and objective at decision making than we are.  But we aren’t. Bias is a function of the mind – a means of decision making. We see something and make a quick assessment about what it is based on our previous experiences or learned beliefs, and then we act accordingly. If we didn’t build up these assessments over time, it would slow our processing to such a pace that we would never get anything accomplished. The problem comes when those quick decisions are not the best decisions – when we make snap judgements about someone because of the way they look or dress, the way they talk, or what part of the world they come from. But conversely, they can be life-saving, as in when we are able to react quickly to a threat that might be coming our way. Rather than trying to make the biases stop, the key is to learn how to manage them and become more aware of how they are affecting us. The ultimate question to ask yourself is not whether I am biased, rather ask yourself to identify what your biases are in this moment.

The most common type of bias in the workplace is cognitive or implicit bias, meaning the stereotypes or ways of thinking affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.  We can often be completely blind to them until we have the opportunity for someone to bring them to our attention or we have had the opportunity to raise our own awareness by seeking these instances out in our daily lives. As cognitive biases are a systematic error in thinking, occurring when people are processing and interpreting information in the world around them, it affects the decisions and judgments that we make. It is incredibly important to understand how these biases impact your workforce and how they can have a detrimental effect on your company’s hiring, recruiting, and talent retention efforts.

How can you tell if you are experiencing a cognitive bias? The website VeryWellMind included the following examples as a test:

  • Only paying attention to news stories that confirm your opinions
  • Blaming outside factors when things don't go your way
  • Attributing other people's success to luck, but taking personal credit for your own accomplishments
  • Assuming that everyone else shares your opinions or beliefs
  • Learning a little about a topic and then assuming you know all there is to know about it

Each one of these biases has a specific name, and there are resources out there that name and describe many of these cognitive biases. For the purposes of this blog, we will focus on a few identified in that article on VeryWellMind:

  • Actor – Observer bias. This is one where you attribute your faults to an external source, but attribute another person’s to an internal flaw. So you might be overweight, but for you it’s due to the sedentary work of the job and perhaps genetics. An overweight co-worker lacks self-control.
  • Confirmation bias. This bias happens when we believe information that already fits our world view, and discard other information because it does not. This has become worse over time due to social media, which tends to show us only information that conforms to our previous searches and rarely the counter argument.
  • False consensus. This is another bias exacerbated by social media. In this one we tend to believe more people believe with our point of view than actually do. You might conduct a panel interview, and have a low opinion of a prospective employee, only to be shocked that the rest of the panel does not agree with you at all.
  • Halo effect. Your opinion of a person impacts your impression of everything they do. It might be from physical attractiveness, but it could be from going to the same school as you. Due to this bias, you will unconsciously rate them higher on reviews, and assist them more with promotions due to your high opinion of them.
  • Horn effect or Devil Effect. This is the opposite of the Halo Effect, and takes place when you look upon a person unfavorably because of something about them and you make negative decisions about them because of it. It could be a protected reason, like race, sexual orientation, or it could be knowing where they live or marital status. If this person is an employee, his or her work accomplishments are then influenced by this bias. For example, if a person goes above and beyond at work smashing sales numbers, an employee benefitting from the Halo effect may be told he or she “Went above and beyond and should be rewarded” while an employee under the Horn effect may be told “The sales targets were obviously set too low.”

So, why discuss cognitive bias in regards to workforce? If you are in a position of authority in your organization, these biases may influence your decision on who to hire, promote, who to discipline, performance review ratings, and more. You may not be aware that you are acting on your biases, and when someone quits you might not really understand what happened.

The applicant we choose as being the most confident, may not actually be the most confident, but they may remind us of someone who is confident and we are projecting that on them when we are making hiring decisions.  We are constantly making meaning of circumstances based on our previous experiences, and those previous experiences, more often than not, include biases towards or away from something else. 

These cognitive biases also play into biases on race, sexuality, gender, poverty, and much more. If you think managers must be aggressive, and feel men are by their “nature” more aggressive, you might favor men for promotion. If you successfully promote several men, you might feel everyone agrees with your decisions and by default continue doing so. You might even find something “wrong” with female candidates, to justify your actions. All of this shows the interplay between sexism and a variety of cognitive biases.

The key is, as Howard Ross says is to, “Shine the flashlight” on these decisions so that we can understand why we make the choices that we do, so that we can become more aware of how we may be excluding or being biased without knowing.  Did you hire someone because you had a gut feeling about them?  That could be a bias in play.  Is there someone new to your team that you really don’t care for, but you don’t know why? Again, more than likely, that feeling is being influenced by a bias.

The more awareness and consciousness we can bring to decisions like these, the more likely we will be able to make decisions that are unbiased and that lead to better talent management for your company.

Workforce Strategy Consultant Authors:

Jessica Miller, Workforce Strategy Consultant for Southwest Minnesota

Shawn Herhusky, Workforce Strategy Consultant for Northeast Minnesota


Related CareerForceMN.com content:

Main Hidden Bias in the Workplace page

Recognizing Hidden Bias in Recruiting and Hiring