As I discussed in the last post, we all have biases. And these biases can't be parked at the door when we come to work. They impact our interactions with clients as well as co-workers, subordinates, and leaders. As a result, unconscious biases impact the success of individuals throughout their careers. For equity-seeking groups (i.e., women, racialized and Aboriginal employees, persons with disabilities, newcomers, LGBTQ) the result is lower pay, higher rates of under-employment and higher unemployment even when they have the same levels of education.
Unconscious bias operates in subtle but damaging ways throughout the organization. If left unchecked, they can also undermine an organization's equity and diversity efforts and help to shape an organizational culture that is exclusive rather than inclusive.
Even small negative or positive biases have a cumulative effect over one's lifetime. Positive biases support some people to be successful while negative biases undermine the success of others. The result can be large differences in power and position over one's career.
Micro-aggressions: Our unconscious biases can cause us to mismanage interactions with colleagues and our biases can be expressed in subtle ways and can take the form of micro-aggressions. These are the often unconscious slights and insults that equity-seeking groups experience in the workplace.
These micro-aggressions can take various forms, including:
- A woman's comment or suggestion is ignored, but the same comment is praised when it is made by a man later in a meeting.
- Employees don't learn to pronounce a co-worker's name correctly and routinely mispronounce or Anglicize it.
- Racialized people constantly being asked "Where are you from?" despite having grown up in Canada.
Exclusion: Affinity bias means that we naturally seek out and interact more easily with people who are similar to us. The similarity can be gender, race, educational background or other characteristics.
As a result we could be unconsciously excluding those who are not like us from conversations and social interactions that occur over lunch and coffee. Important information is shared and team building occurs through these informal interactions. This could leave equity-seeking groups with limited knowledge of the work, work practices and important organizational knowledge needed for success. It would also leave them feeling isolated in the workplace which can be a form of workplace harassment and can in fact be more psychologically harmful than bullying.
Performance Reviews: As the gateway to advancement, biases in the performance review process may be reinforcing a glass ceiling that limits the advancement of equity-seeking groups into management positions. Studies of performance appraisals indicate that women are more likely to receive feedback based on personality traits that were contradictory to the feedback provided to males. For example, while men may be praised for being confident and assertive, the same behaviour in women could be criticized for being abrasive. Further, biases about men being better leaders could mean that they are favoured for leadership positions. As such, they are provided with the opportunities and support to be successful in leadership positions.
Compensation: Unconscious biases can also create a gender wage gap, paying women less for doing the same jobs as their male counterparts. This bias occurs at even the highest levels of the organization.
Organizational culture: Unconscious biases also help shape the organizational culture and can create a hostile and unwelcoming work environment for equity-seeking groups. This can result in lower morale, lower productivity, and higher turnover rates. Some suggest that the under-representation of women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) positions is due in part to biases that create an unwelcoming environment for women.
Hiring: Certainly unconscious biases affect who gets hired. We will explore the impact of unconscious bias in the hiring process more fully in the next blog post.
If it is so subtle, how can an organization identify the impact of unconscious biases in the workplace?
Here are some questions to explore whether your organization has a problem with unconscious bias:
- Do employees doing similar work get paid differently? McMaster University conducted a study of the base salaries of female faculty. It found a bias in favour of male faculty when it came to salaries. To close this gap, it boosted the base salaries of female faculty by $3,515.
- Is there a difference in the composition of those at the management level and those at the frontlines? For example, are a larger proportion of frontline or program staff women or racialized, yet those in management positions tend to be White men? This would suggest that racialized employees or women are not getting the same opportunities and support for advancement.
- Is there a difference in the time it takes for employees to advance into leadership positions? For example, are the White men in management positions younger on average than their racialized, Aboriginal or female counterparts? This might suggest both negative biases that hold some groups back and positive biases that support the advancement of White men.
- Is there higher turnover among equity-seeking groups than others? This might suggest that biases and the organizational culture are creating an unwelcoming environment. These groups may also be seeking opportunities for growth and leadership with other organizations because they feel that their opportunities are currently limited.
- Does your employee engagement survey suggest that engagement is lower for equity-seeking groups than others? Analyzing your employee engagement data could tell you a lot about how employees from equity-seeking groups are feeling, which reflects how they are treated in the organization.
The answers to these questions will certainly suggest that unconscious biases may be impacting the success of individuals in the workplace. It may also point to systemic biases; that is, biases embedded in your human resource policies and practices. All of which need to be examined and addressed if your organization is seeking to create a more diverse workforce and inclusive work environment.
In my next blog post, I'll explore the impact of unconscious bias in the hiring process.