Should I Be Worried About Bias in My Workplace?

by Patrice Altenhofen on April 28, 2011

in Compliance,Diversity & Inclusion,Training

 We Can Try

Question:  I consider myself well-informed on employment laws and regulations.  I do my best to make my hiring decisions legally.  But I am concerned about any unconscious bias that may be impacting my decisions.  What should I take extra care to consider?

Answer:  Bias can be subtle.  While the conscious mind is adept at recognizing right from wrong, the subconscious mind may be influencing your decisions in a less distinct way.  There are several employment practices not limited to the hiring process that may indicate bias. 

The following are examples of employment practices that could be used by a plaintiff to support an employment-related claim.

  • National Origin Scrutiny – All new employees complete the I-9 Form as required, but you only take photocopies of the documentation provided by “suspect” individuals.  Potential result:  “Foreign” workers are subjected to elevated scrutiny.
  • Sexual Stereotyping – Your application process is open to anyone, but you only interview those who you presume to be able to satisfy the physically demanding job requirements.  Potential result:  Only men, not women, are given meaningful consideration for employment.
  • Gender-Based Working Condition – You provide coffee for the office, but only women are trained and/or expected to make coffee.  Potential result:  Women’s role in the professional workplace is marginalized.
  • Overstated Physical Requirements – You develop a job description for every position, but you overstate the actual physical requirements of the job based on what you want – rather than what the job actually requires.  Potential result:  Individuals with certain disabilities are arbitrarily screened out of consideration.
  • Racial Profiling – You conduct criminal history checks before hiring a new employee, but you only run the checks on certain individuals you perceive as higher risk.  Potential result: Minorities are disproportionately eliminated from consideration.
  • “Reverse” Discrimination – Your layoff policy states that you will retain employees most qualified to perform the available work, but in practice, no minorities are laid off even though some are less qualified for the work than their white co-workers.  Potential result:  White employees are discriminated against by your overly cautious practice.
  • Accommodating Customer Preferences – Your practice is to hire the person most qualified for the position, but when two people are qualified you hire the person whose looks or appearance you think your customers will prefer.  Potential result:  While your customers may indicate a preference for working with people that “look like them” your practice could have a discriminatory impact against certain protected groups.

What can you do to reduce the impact of bias in your workplace?  Here are some things to consider:

  • Develop and consistently follow a systematic employment process with all applicants and employees, including but not limited to I-9 Forms, criminal history checks, job descriptions, promotion opportunities, layoffs, and access to training.  Objective systems help minimize subjective judgments.
  • When conducting interviews, use more than one interviewer.  Those involved in interviewing should receive training about appropriate interviewing techniques, including what questions to avoid asking.  By involving more than one person, you decrease the chance that your decisions will be based off of the biases of which you are unaware.
  • Provide interactive and participatory workplace opportunities for all employees.  These types of opportunities can expose employees to many types of people outside of those with whom they normally associate.  Getting your employees to know more about each other can help overcome limits created by stereotyping.
  • Employees at all levels should receive training about diversity in the workplace, including discrimination and harassment awareness.  Provide additional training specifically addressing bias to those responsible for making employment-related decisions. 
  • Think before you act.  Before you make a decision, make an effort to consider why you are making a particular decision and whether your decision could be influenced by biases.  Get an objective second opinion if possible.

Subconscious bias creates a difficult problem for employers.  Though unintentional, decisions impacted by subconscious biases can support a claim of illegal discrimination.  Just asking the question above indicates the awareness necessary to begin breaking down the potentially significant barriers raised by the subconscious mind.


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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Diversity Training May 2, 2011 at 12:53 pm

Great article Patrice! Thank you.

Most people seem to disregard their “subconscious bias”, thinking its not a factor. This article should help shed some light on the issue.

2 Patrice Altenhofen May 4, 2011 at 2:19 pm

Thank you – I appreciate the feedback.

It’s obviously not realistic to monitor the “subconscious” so it’s useful to monitor and be mindful of actions.

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