Unconscious Biases at the Workplace


In the last part, we were introduced to the issue of “Implicit” or “Unconscious” bias – a phenomenon that can manifest itself in our personal and professional lives and can affect the choices we make or the decisions we take.

When tackling with the issue of unconscious bias at the workplace, it is important to know that it can influence decisions at all levels in an organization, especially having a big impact on people-related decisions – right from hiring, allocating work, to developing, promoting and retaining talent. When I first started reading about the topic of unconscious bias and its effect on our lives, I came across an interesting, but a striking example. Some law firms in the US were given a fictitious legal memo that consisted of grammatical, factual and technical analysis errors. When the memo was perceived to be written by a Black author, the white law firm partners managed to find more errors and rated the memo as low in quality, as compared to the report produced when the author was perceived to be White. This example has stayed with me for a long time, especially given the fact that the actors in the example are lawyers, whose work is based on factual and relevant examples. However, their preconceptions came in the way of looking at the memo as an independent document, irrespective of its author.

While there are more than 150 cognitive biases, some are more common or known than others such as the affinity bias or Halo & horn effect or the perception bias. We have already established in the previous article that biases exist in every organization and the difficult truth about unconscious bias is it is an immutable force and is not going to go away, no matter how much we learn or read about it. Our unconscious biases show up in micro-seconds and influence our decisions without our conscious awareness.

One might wonder, if unconscious biases are not going to go away, what is the point? While that sounds correct, organizations have to identify the threats of unconscious biases and work towards creating a culture where it is acceptable for people to identify and call out biases when they see or hear them occurring. If organizations don’t address these biases, they can turn into discrimination, and in turn affect 1) working relationships and trust, resulting in an unhealthy working environment at a micro-level, with a lot of in-fighting and politics; 2) diverse talent recruitment; 3) work productivity; 4) promotion and professional development and 5) creativity and innovation at the workplace. Unconscious biases can cloud judgment and compel individuals to take decisions that can be detrimental to the overall wellbeing of an organization.

Many organizations, right from start-ups to large corporate giants, are guilty of falling prey to the issue of unconscious bias impacting their decisions. Let’s look at an oft-quoted example of one of the biggest video-sharing platforms, YouTube. Following the release of one of its new apps, YouTube realized that 5-10% of the videos shot using the app were uploaded upside down. Engineers working on the app were puzzled how so many users were filming videos “incorrectly”. Further investigations revealed unconscious bias was to blame as the engineers had unknowingly or unintentionally created an app which only worked for right-hand users. This meant left-hand users had to rotate their phones 180 degrees to get it into filming position, which led to the app capturing their videos upside down.

Clearly biases can affect decisions, but let’s not forget they can be mitigated. Many organizations today have various different methods to first, identify and then overcome these biases in the workplace, to create a cohesively strong workplace. We will discuss these in the next, final part.

Author: AboleeValsangkar is a D&I Champion working at BNY Mellon, Pune