How to Address Bias in the Workplace: Prevention Through Proper Understanding

Workplace bias is very difficult to address as employers have difficulty distinguishing "differences" from "bias." We all have differences, and we value them in the workplace in the name of innovation. We also all have inherent biases as our brains are hardwired to group people and situations together to make sense of the world. It's what accounts for stereotypes, and what we consider "good" versus "bad." 

different personalities and biases

Eliminating these inherent biases is difficult. However, in not addressing biases, employers risk making bad decisions from being incapable of seeing the bigger picture. Innovative products and strategies may go unnoticed, and under-appreciated employees may leave. At worst, failing to address bias can encourage the escalation of workplace hostilities. At some point, an employer may eventually find a discrimination lawsuit on their hands. 

Thus, workplace bias certainly warrants further discussion. Below, we discuss how pervasive bias is, define different types of bias, and finally, offer strategies for how employers can best prevent and mitigate bias in the workplace.  

Workplace bias is not a thing of the past

We've come a long way since our Mad Men days where society seemed to encourage sexual harassment and verbal abuse in the workplace. In modern times, we now have laws and institutions to enforce against this type of egregious behavior, including federal and state equal employment opportunity laws.

words and images depicting bias at work

Yet, even with legal and institutional protections, 20% of workers say they face hostile social environments at work. The type of hostile behavior varies by age and gender, with younger women experiencing more incidences of receiving unwanted sexual attention, and younger men experiencing more incidences of verbal abuse and humiliation. 

That such a large percentage of workers have these negative experiences is alarming. With such a large percentage, it seems unlikely those reporting are all just hyper-sensitive types. Rather, it's more likely that a large portion of people think their conduct towards someone is okay, when in fact that someone perceives it as crossing a social boundary.

Defining bias in the workplace

Addressing bias first requires defining what it is:

Bias in the workplace is providing an employee with preferential or disparate treatment due to an attribute not having anything to do with that employee's work performance, such as their religion, gender, race, or age. 
bias and discrimination - unbalanced scales

Bias can be overt, such as when businesses in the past advertised they would only accept applicants for a secretarial position who were unmarried women under the age of 25. In such a case, the employer is very openly advertising their bias against older, married women and against all men. 

Bias can also be subtle. These days, it happens when a group fails to value the only woman's opinion during meetings, when a company habitually offers men higher salaries, or offers men taller than 6ft higher salaries than their shorter counterparts

Scholars have found experiencing these forms of subtle biases are more damaging than experiencing overt bias. That might seem counter-intuitive, but it makes sense if we understand that subtle bias happens repeatedly and without legal recourse. Thus, its persistence can become a defining part of the workplace culture, thereby decreasing work productivity, innovation, and employee retention.

In the article, "The Real Effects of Unconscious Bias in the Workplace," Horace McCormick, Jr., Program Director of UNC Executive Development at the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School, refers to five subtle forms of bias as directly impacting the workplace: 

unconscious bias between coworkers
  • Affinity bias: having preferences towards individuals most like ourselves. 
  • Halo effect: thinking everything someone does is good just because you like that person. 
  • Perception bias: not being able to make an objective opinion about someone because of their affiliation with, and our assumptions about, a certain group. 
  • Confirmation bias: the tendency to seek confirmation to reinforce our presumptions about a person or group. 
  • Group think: trying so hard to fit in that a person loses their identity. 

Employers' offer of support is the best prevention and mitigation strategy

bias training opportunity

Bias training is popular among large companies these days. However, training is hit or miss with whether it'll resonate. While educating employees about biases is important, whether any given training program will be effective will depend on its message delivery. According to the diversity consulting firm, Paradigm, a good program is one that is hands-on and takes a problem-solving approach - one that teaches what individuals can do - not what they shouldn't do.

A more concrete and direct way to address bias may be for employers to simply be good managers and offer employees with the right type of support. A survey revealed that employers who supported employees had less reported incidences of violence, aggression, and verbal abuse at work. 

The more forms of support an employer implemented, the less chance an employee reported being subjected to a hostile work environment.

The more forms of support an employer implemented, the less chance an employee reported being subjected to a hostile work environment.

Methods of Support:

  • showing employees trust and respect
  • providing praise
  • offering help
  • encouraging development
  • getting people to collaborate
  • providing employees with useful feedback.

Addressing workplace bias is difficult because we all have biases that we may be unaware of. However, in addition to some bias training, simply being a supportive manager is likely the most effective and direct way to combat bias in the workplace.

To speak with our business consultant about these matters and more, contact Brannon Professionals via our website.