Breaking Down Bias in the Workplace

Written by Nicola Wylie
Last updated October 23, 2023

Discrimination in the workplace is often easier to spot than bias in the workplace, particularly if the bias in question is unconscious bias. However, bias can often be more prevalent in a workplace than direct discrimination and it can cause more widespread and systemic problems.

Bias in the workplace is not an uncommon issue. In fact, many people from different groups across the U.K. suffer as a result of bias in both recruitment and employment. Bias can lead to discrimination, hold people of certain groups back from employment, and contribute to the poor mental health of certain groups too. 

Bias, when left undealt with, is incredibly damaging. We cannot have safe, equal, and inclusive workplaces while bias is left to its own devices. In order to create the diverse working environments that we want, we need to actively work on breaking down bias in the workplace. 

In this blog, we are going to talk about the hows and whys of this issue. First up, let’s define exactly what we mean by the terms bias and unconscious bias. 

What is Bias?

Oxford Languages defines bias as an “inclination or prejudice for or against one person or group, especially in a way considered to be unfair.” Biases affect the decisions we make and how we interact with others. Sometimes we are not fully aware of the biases we have and we may not recognise that they are driving our behaviours in the way that they are. When this is the case, we call it unconscious bias. Unconscious bias is extremely common and most of us will have our own set of biased thoughts. The only thing that matters is a commitment to acknowledging and tackling them.

Bias is particularly important to acknowledge when it comes to the workplace. Many employers and employees are exhibiting bias towards staff and colleagues in their place of work, with or without realising it. This impacts how people are treated and interacted with on a daily basis. When left undealt with, these biases can cause big problems for entire groups of people. It can lead to bullying, discrimination, harassment, and mental health problems in the worst-case scenarios. Even in less serious scenarios, untackled bias can lead to people feeling excluded and less important than others around them. 

Untackled bias is also a significant problem when it comes to recruitment decisions. Many people do not get jobs that they want and deserve purely because of biases held by recruiters and employers making recruitment decisions. This can lead to not only individual disappointment but also systemic employment gaps between social groups, such as the BAME employment gap. Biases in recruitment, in fact, hold significant power in communities and society as a whole. Hence why it is so important to talk about this issue and work together towards resolutions. 

Types of bias

As well as the difference between bias and unconscious bias, which we have discussed above, there are subsets or types of bias that exist. It is important to be aware of these types of biases so that it is easier to spot them when they are taking place. 

Types of bias include: 

  • Affinity bias: When we prefer people who possess similar qualities to ourselves, this is called affinity bias. This can easily become about race or gender, as some affinity bias may manifest as male recruiters preferring male candidates as they possess similar gender-related qualities. 
  • Attribution bias: Our understanding and interpretation of our own and others’ actions can sometimes be tainted by attribution bias. This is when we attribute a much larger meaning to a small action someone has made in an interview or application. This can have any range of protected characteristic-related biases behind it.
  • Beauty bias: We may be influenced by beauty bias if we prefer people who we perceive as beautiful and whose appearance we like. Again, this can easily slip into a racial bias, as some people may have a bias that certain races are less attractive to them and they then make a decision based on this.
  • Conformity bias: In situations of conformity bias, people tend to conform to the views and opinions of the majority. In a recruitment panel, a recruiter may go along with what everyone else thinks. They may not even realise they are doing it. If everyone else is making a decision based on bias, this perpetuates the bias.
  • Confirmation bias: We are prone to confirmatory bias when we choose evidence that confirms our beliefs and experiences. Our beliefs can prevent us from seeing or valuing evidence that contradicts them. For example, a recruiter may believe the White candidate will be better than the Asian candidate they are interviewing, as such they will look for clues throughout their interview to confirm this and think that the recruitment decision is fair and based on merit. 
  • The halo effect: When focusing solely on one “great” aspect of an individual rather than the whole picture, the halo effect can introduce bias into decision-making. This great aspect might be their gender, background, race, or sexuality, and so, again can result in significant bias.
  • Name bias: Some people may be biased based on names they see, attributing certain beliefs and stereotypes to names. This means that people of certain cultures and backgrounds may not even receive an interview for a job they want.

Bias can also simply be connected with each of the protected characteristics outlined in the Equality Act, which are:

  • age
  • gender reassignment
  • being married or in a civil partnership
  • being pregnant or on maternity leave
  • disability
  • race including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation

How to Tackle Bias in the Workplace 

Now that we have fully defined what bias is, we must know how to deal with and tackle it. 

To tackle bias at work, employers need to:

  • Examine their own unconscious biases through workshops, learning and training. 
  • Run diversity training for all members of staff and specific training for anyone involved in recruitment and HR.
  • Employ diverse recruitment panels to ensure a diverse mindset in all decision-making processes. 
  • Use “blind” applications where recruiters cannot see the names, locations, or backgrounds of applications before interviews.
  • Run all decisions by multiple people to ensure you’ve accounted for bias. 
  • Listen to diverse members of staff and take their perspectives on board. Run group meetings and task forces to gather feedback and implement any changes from this feedback. 

Ultimately, breaking down bias in the workplace is about taking on the challenge of learning about ourselves. It involves implementing procedures to ensure that our biases do not interrupt equal, diverse, and inclusive recruitment and employment. 

Become a Diversity-Positive Employer

Breaking down bias is just one concept of becoming a diversity-positive employer. In fact, there is a lot more to it. 

At Aspiring to Include, we make this process easier for employers, with our guidance and services for employers. You can find everything you need to learn and develop as an equal employer. Then you can put all the systems in place you need to recruit and employ inclusively. 

Check out what we have to offer and if you need any further guidance, don’t hesitate to reach out

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Last Updated: Monday February 26 2024
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