Fighting Hidden Bias at Work

Fighting Hidden Bias at Work

by Felicity Menzies

Unconscious bias in recruitment, selection, promotion, development, and everyday workplace interaction limits the strategic potential that that can flow from a diverse workforce for higher-quality problem solving and decision making, innovation and creativity, accessing diverse customers and suppliers, and attracting and energising top global talent.

While best-practice unconscious bias training is a critical and necessary component of an organisation’s practices to foster inclusion, companies committed to reducing unconscious bias can also draw upon social psychological literature to design work settings that temper the automatic activation of stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination.

Workplace cultures that support self-worth, promote employee well-being, offer opportunities for positive intergroup contact, and encourage and reward pro-equality norms, support unconscious bias training and encourage the transfer of knowledge and skills acquired in training to the workplace.

In an earlier post, I examined the first of those suggestions—workplace cultures that support self-worth. Because prejudice can be a defensive response to integrity or self-esteem threats, self-affirming workplaces can reduce the motivation for prejudice and tendencies for explicit or unconscious bias. In contrast, workplaces that threaten one’s integrity and self-esteem are more fertile grounds for “us” and “them” categorisations, the activation of negative stereotypes, and explicit or unconscious biased attitudes and behaviours.

In this post, I suggest additional approaches to fostering workplaces that support an organisation’s investment in unconscious bias training.

Employee Well-being

Stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination involve the consideration of others as members of a larger group, rather than as differentiated individuals. The human brain has a natural tendency to categorise everything in our environment. This process of categorisation is adaptive in that it simplifies our environment and frees up mental resources. At any one time, our brain is bombarded with infinite stimuli. Without an efficient method of making sense of this information, our brains would become overloaded. By sorting all of these stimuli into simpler categories, we can process our environments more efficiently, freeing up mental resources for other tasks. Categorisation provides a sense of order and predictability to our world that, in turn, we rely upon to guide our behaviour.

By perceiving individuals in terms of their social categories, we can form assumptions and expectations about others to guide us in our interactions with them. Our schema for the elderly may alert us to the fact that we may need to speak more loudly when interacting with an elderly shop assistant. Our schema for doctors may lead us to seek out and trust their advice when we are ill.

The adaptive benefit of stereotypes is supported by research that demonstrates they are more likely to be applied under cognitive load. When we have limited cognitive resources available for social perception (for example, because we are distracted by another mentally taxing task, or we are under emotional or physiological stress), we rely more on stereotypes for our judgments and to guide our responses.

Working with people from backgrounds different from our own can be complex, stressful, and exhausting. Often there are communication barriers, misunderstandings, and value conflicts. Also, time-zone differences, international travel, and virtual communication can increase the risk of exhaustion and burnout. Although managing unconscious bias is critical for effectiveness in diverse cultural settings, the challenges associated with intercultural interactions can trigger anxiety and social categorisation.

Efforts to enhance employee well-being and boost resilience in intercultural settings can help to buffer stress and counter a reliance on stereotypes and “us” vs. “them” categorisations. Assignments in multicultural settings should be challenging—but not overly so. Organisations should be wary of imposing tight deadlines or significant resource constraints.

Culture shock refers to the disorientation and distress that a person experiences when they are exposed to a novel cultural environment and fail to adjust their cultural framework. Culture shock is linked to an increased reliance on stereotypes as well as ethnocentrism—a belief in the superiority of one’s own culture—and prejudice. Cultural intelligence training or coaching can help reduce the risk of culture shock.

Positive Intergroup Contact

Studies indicate that the formation of intergroup friendships can help to dismantle social categorisations and decrease bias.

Organisations should offer individuals from different social groups opportunities to develop intimate friendships over an extended period. Relational activities might involve social get-togethers and recreational activities, ensuring there is adequate time for interpersonal dialogue on top of work responsibilities, formal team-building initiatives, and mentoring.

Activities that encourage diverse individuals to share information about their unique backgrounds, experiences, and skills promotes individuation of out-group members such that they come to be considered as individuals rather than as a member of a broader social category. Under this approach, the focus moves from “one of them” to “you and me”.

There is another mechanism by which relational-based activities decrease the tendency for bias. Studies have shown that social categories can become more inclusive by inducing a positive mood state. There are a couple of reasons why this occurs. Firstly, we are attracted to people that we associate with feeling good. Secondly, research shows that a positive mood enhances our cognitive flexibility and leads to broader and more inclusive categorisations.

Conversely, organisations seeking to support the transfer of skills from unconscious bias training back to the workplace should seek to limit practices that might exacerbate negative tensions between groups, like highly individualistic job designs, and reward structures that foster competitiveness and defensiveness.

Face-to-face intergroup contact may not be possible in some contexts. Different cultural groups might be geographically dispersed providing limited opportunities for direct contact. Many intercultural interactions in the workplace occur virtually. Studies indicate, however, that positive indirect contact can have a similar effect to direct positive contact.

There are four types of indirect social contact:

  • Extended contact involves learning that another member of one’s ingroup has a close relationship with a member of another social group
  • Imagined contact involves imagining yourself engaging in positive interactions with a member of another group
  • Parasocial contact involves being exposed to intergroup interactions through the media
  • Vicarious contact involves observing the positive interaction of another in-group member with out-group members

While empirical support for indirect contact is much lower in volume than for direct-face-face contact, its effectiveness for dismantling social categorisations and reducing prejudice and bias is now established.

Organisations can promote positive indirect contact through the use of corporate communications like company websites, newsletters, emails, briefings, and team meetings to highlight examples of positive relations between members of different social groups. The modeling of intergroup friendships by leaders and diversity champions is another powerful technique.


Pro-equality Norms

The way that we categorise people is socially constructed and is thus powerfully influenced by social norms. Normative approaches can be simple yet effective interventions in the workplace and can be approached from multiple angles including:

  • Organisational culture and policies—promoting diversity and inclusion, sanctioning discrimination and prejudice
  • Corporate communications—highlighting examples of intergroup friendships and positive intergroup contact
  • Leadership—diversity at leadership level, modeling pro-social intergroup behaviours,
  • Diversity champions—speaking out against and modeling appropriate responses to bias and prejudice, modeling positive intergroup interactions and diverse friendships

The Necessity of a Multifaceted Approach to Unconscious Bias

Addressing unconscious bias at work is problematic because, by its definition, an individual will most likely be unaware of its influence. Also, negative stereotypes and prejudices are maintained and reinforced by powerful cognitive and motivational biases that act to filter out information that contradicts or challenges our preexisting beliefs or attitudes.

While training is a critical and necessary component of an organisation’s efforts to reduce unconscious bias, unconscious bias training alone is unlikely to be effective at reducing bias at work. The complexity of unconscious bias necessitates a multifaceted approach. Organisations that invest in unconscious bias training and commit to work environments that discourage social categorisations stand the best chance of leveraging the strategic value of diversity.

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Felicity Menzies is CEO and Principal Consultant at Include-Empower.Com, a diversity and inclusion consultancy with expertise in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, cultural intelligence and inclusion, gender equity, empowering diverse talent. Felicity is an accredited facilitator with the Cultural Intelligence Centre and the author of A World of Difference. Felicity has over 15 years of experience working with and managing diverse workforces in blue chip companies and is a Fellow of Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand. Felicity also holds a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology.