Surfacing unconscious bias

Prejudice can lead to unequal outcomes, underutilized talent and marginalized contributions
By Rumeet Billan
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/30/2017
Unconscious Bias
Credit: Jirsak (Shutterstock)

People see the world through the lens of their experiences, biases and various identity factors. As a result, the assumptions they hold shape the decisions they make — but these decisions may be creating unequal outcomes for employees.

Unconscious bias refers to a bias we are unaware of. It happens automatically and is outside of our control. These biases, which for the most part are invisible, are triggered by the brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations.

Whether the biases are unconscious, implicit or explicit, they help people make sense of the world as they seek to understand it. Further, they guide our day-to-day decisions and are most prevalent when people are put under pressure because they rely on shortcuts in the brain to help them fill in the gaps.

Past experiences and the assumptions people hold play a role in this, but the danger is that these shortcuts may be unintentionally creating unequal outcomes, resulting in underutilized talent and marginalized contributions by employees.

The human resources function requires careful and intentional consideration of unconscious bias and its impact on business practice and the decisions being made. For example, the recruitment process may be ignoring certain candidates with diverse life circumstances.

For recruiters, considering vulnerabilities is important, along with looking at the capabilities people in these life circumstances can bring to a position. Further, an exploration of policies that would deter potential candidates from using these capabilities and strengths in the workplace is critical.

Unconscious bias can also be seen when resumés are sorted based on a candidate’s name — some candidates may be given priority because there is a belief that an ethnic group is dominant in the area of a specific skill.

One way to reduce this bias is anonymized short-listing. This means all names are removed prior to reviewing applications. Another example involves competency and whether age and foreign-versus-local qualifications are unintentionally viewed and valued differently.

In this case, using standard applications may help to manage people’s assumptions. Assuming that all stakeholders view and experience a specific policy or process in the same way can lead to unintended consequences.

Exploring how diverse groups experience processes can help build awareness and challenge our assumptions. A couple of key questions to ask are: What am I assuming? How do specific groups experience this process differently?

Additionally, in the interview process, training for situational explanations versus dispositional explanations can reduce levels of bias that may be automatic. For leaders, it is important to be aware of how experiences, influenced by intersecting factors, can impact the decisions people make.

Our behaviour towards others is influenced by hidden biases that can impact how we act, react and interact. Left unmanaged, specific groups may continue to be disadvantaged by our policies, programs and practices.

Further, they have the potential to obstruct employee engagement and restrain specific groups from being and feeling included.

Steps can be taken to minimize the impact of unconscious bias in the workplace. These include: approaching policies in an informed way, specific training and intervention, empathy-driven dialogue, and heightened self-awareness.

As an example, gender-based analysis training is an evidence-based process with the goal of creating responsive and equitable policies. A core competency developed through this type of training and intervention is the capacity to challenge our own assumptions.

Empathy-driven and reflective dialogue can help people to reframe policies that may be excluding specific groups. Further, heightening self-awareness around the experiences that shape people’s perspectives can aid in understanding how assumptions are derived and where there may be gaps.

Taking steps to minimize unconscious bias can help uncover the realities of people’s lives in all their diversity, while improving employer policies and creating a workplace that is inclusive.

Rumeet Billan is president of Viewpoint Leadership, a learning and development firm in Toronto. She can be reached at

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