Eliminating Bias in the Workplace

Use these easy strategies and helpful tips to help eliminate bias in the workplace.
November 29, 2012

Imagine that your employee has been talking about continuing his or her education, and is considering going back to grad school. You have a managerial position open for which this person would be perfect, but in the back of your mind, you worry that he or she will either leave or be overly distracted with school. So you create other reasons why another employee is better for the role, and leave this person as is.

This is just one example of the new workplace bias.

Bias Goes from Conscious to Unconscious

Bill Shackelford is the president of diversity consulting firm IEC Enterprises and the author of Minority Recruiting: Building the Strategies and Relationships for Effective Diversity Recruiting. In his article for Workforce Diversity Network, Shackelford says an understanding of how bias creeps into today’s enlightened workplace starts with an expanded definition, which is: 

Bias: "Intentional and unintentional, conscious and subconscious, attitudes, behaviors and actions that have a negative and differential impact on segments of the society, or favor one segment of the society."       

As Shackelford points out, most employers have adopted fair employment practices designed to manage the classic forms of bias (i.e., intentional and conscious). Examples of intentional and conscious bias would be actions designed to intentionally discriminate against individuals because of their race, gender or ethnicity. Refusing to hire people because of their race or promote people because of their gender are classic examples from the past.  

But today’s most common forms of bias are more subtle, as in the case listed above. Decisions to hire and promote are often not based solely on the qualifications of the candidates, but are influenced by subjective criteria. When these subjective criteria relate to fixed diversity dimensions (race, gender, age, sexual orientation, etc.), the resulting decision is inherently biased. 

Eliminating Subtle Bias

According to Shackelford, the first step in eradicating subtle bias is acknowledging that it may exist. Every organization can ask these five questions—comparing employees' race and gender—to find out:

  • Is there a significant difference in Pay (mean, medium, average) among employees doing similar work?
  • Is there a significant difference in the Performance Evaluations (percent favorable) for employees?
  • Is there a significant difference in time between Promotions for employees?
  • What Positions (support versus revenue producing) are held by the most senior people, and what is their race and gender?
  • Is there a significant difference in the percentages of employees in Senior/Executive Positions versus mid-level positions?

Keeping Yourself Honest 

This process will help your organization root out bias and other cultural dysfunctions on a global level, but there are also things you can do as an individual to ensure that you are treating all employees with fairness and respect.           

  • When interviewing, don’t trust your gut. Compare apples to apples by developing a set of questions, each accompanied by a rating scale of 1-5, that all candidates must answer.
  • Create performance standards that are objective and measurable so they can be applied equally to all employees at the same level.
  • Before making a decision in which you must compare one team member to another, share performance-only details with a third-party who does not know the team members.
  • Don’t overcompensate, worrying so much about making a negative judgment based on bias that your evaluation is overly positive.
  • Practice empathy. Imagine yourself in your team members’ shoes and always ask: “Would I think this scenario is fair?”
  • Be an accessible, open communicator. If team members feel they can talk to you about sensitive issues, you’ll prevent bias situations from escalating.

Alexandra Levit is a former nationally-syndicated business and workplace columnist for The Wall Street Journal and the author of Blind Spots: The 10 Business Myths You Can’t Afford to Believe on Your New Path to Success. Money Magazine’s Online Career Expert of the Year, she regularly speaks at organizations and conferences on issues facing modern employees.

photo: Thinkstock