Prejudice in the workplace

7 min. read

How to reduce prejudice and bias in the workplace.

Prejudice in the workplace, often referred to as implicit or unconscious bias, describes the underlying attitudes and stereotypes people hold, outside of their control and conscious awareness. These biases are attributed to other people or groups of people and can have a significant effect on our mindsets and actions without us realizing it.

Unconscious prejudice can have a detrimental effect in the workplace as it can influence key decisions, hindering diversity and equality, especially during the hiring process and in areas of career progression. To create a modern and diverse organization, it is important to learn how to reduce unconscious bias in the workplace.

Examples of prejudice in the workplace

Here are some common examples of unconscious bias in the workplace:

  • Gender – Gender bias (or sexism) is the tendency to favor one gender over another - often used to refer to the preferential treatment men receive — specifically white, heterosexual males.

  • Age – Refers to stereotyping or judging an individual's ability based on their age.

  • Name – Name bias is the tendency to judge and prefer people with certain types of names, usually names of Anglo origin.

  • Beauty – The positive stereotyping of people who are considered more attractive where it is assumed they are more competent, qualified, and successful based on their physical appearance.

  • Affinity - Also known as similarity bias, affinity bias refers to the tendency to prefer people who share similar interests, backgrounds, and life experiences.

  • Confirmation - The tendency to seek out information in a way that supports a first impression or judgment.

  • Attribution – When someone allows prior knowledge about an individual to affect their perception of their future performance.

  • Conformity – More commonly known as peer pressure - rather than using personal and ethical judgment, people imitate the behavior of others.

  • Halo effect – The halo effect is when one remarkable piece of information about an individual affects your judgment of everything else about them.

  • Horns effect – The horns effect is the opposite of the halo effect, when one negative thing clouds your entire opinion of a person.

  • Contrast effect – The contrast effect is when your opinion is viewed through the lens of what came directly before. For example, in the workplace this could be comparing potential job applicants based on the performance of a previous candidate.

  • Racism The tendency to have fixed ideas and stereotypes concerning people of different races than oneself. Typically thought of as a tendency to treat people of color poorly or unfairly, but this can actually apply to any racially-based prejudice.

8 Steps to reduce bias in the workplace

Addressing unconscious bias in the workplace is essential due to the negative impact it can have on recruitment, employee development, retention, and diversity as a whole. The concept of unconscious bias is a complex one as there are many types of biases that can exist, so setting strategies for overcoming unconscious biases is particularly important.

The following steps will help to ensure that these prejudices don’t occur in your organization's decision-making:

1. Learn about unconscious bias

The first step is to recognize that everyone holds unconscious beliefs, often without them realizing. They are formed from our inherent human cognition, personal experiences, upbringing, cultural context, and environment.

Educating yourself on the common examples of hidden biases and the impact they can have is the key to implementing processes that will reduce them.

2. Recognize which unconscious biases affect you

It is important to introspect and admit if you, yourself, have unconscious biases. It can be difficult to define your own biases based on your life experiences but there are tests you can take to determine which of your perceptions might be affected, such as Harvard's Implicit Association Test. Once you have that information you can take proactive steps to address where they might affect you on a personal basis. This, in turn, will allow you to bring those steps into your organization and discuss them with your peers and employees more openly and honestly.

3. Assess which biases might affect your organization

Unconscious biases can affect the hiring process, promotions, pay raises, performance reviews, bonuses, how work is allocated and managed, as well as workplace etiquette and culture. By assessing where bias is most likely to arise in your organization, you can take the necessary steps to ensure that these biases are taken into account when important decisions are being made. Actions that need to be taken will depend on the size of an organization and how it is structured.

4. Update your hiring process

The impact of unconscious bias in the workplace is most apparent in the recruitment process. In order to make sure that unconscious or conscious prejudices don’t adversely impact your hiring decisions, it might mean you need to make substantial changes. This can include every part of the process from re-evaluating job descriptions to carrying out name-blind recruitment so as to ensure merit-based and equal opportunity hiring practices.

Make sure to standardize the interview process and hire on merit and experience. To build a diverse team, make sure that diversity exists among the group of people or hiring managers tasked with hiring new team members. Once you understand the common types of unconscious bias you are better equipped to see where they might affect recruitment within your organization.

5. Provide bias training in the workplace

An important step to limit the impact biases have on your organization is to make sure that everyone is aware that they exist. Awareness training allows employees to recognize that everyone possesses them and to identify their own.

Unconscious bias training is intended to raise awareness amongst participants to the biases that could affect decisions they are involved in such as recruitment, performance management, promotion, and their attitudes to others in the workplace.

6. Build a culture of openness to encourage employees to talk about biases

In an organization, employees feel engaged and empowered in a culture of openness, where they can speak up without judgment or fear. If you can create a culture that encourages open dialog between employees of all levels, then team members will feel able to report incidences of unconscious bias if they feel they have occurred.

The more transparent you can make a decision-making process, the less likely your organization will be to be affected by unconscious prejudices.

7. Monitor data to highlight unconscious bias

It is important to keep track of statistics within your organization that could reveal unconscious bias. For example, when it comes to performance reviews, you can monitor the results in accordance with the number of female and male candidates. The same applies to accepted job applicants and promotion rates. Of course, the numbers might be a coincidence and other factors could apply, but it is worth review to ensure equality.

8. Set diversity and inclusion goals

Creating a diverse workplace has numerous positive effects on an organization. It increases productivity and innovation, invites more talented employees, and leads to higher retention rates. If you are serious about managing unconscious bias you should set goals based on diversity and inclusivity. It is important to show your employees that you are acting and not just talking the talk. You can build a program that suits your organization and team members to create a diverse and successful unit.

Key takeaways

Every one of us is affected by prejudice and biases, so it is important to recognize this rather than shy away from it on both a personal and professional level. From an organizational perspective, the sooner we realize this reality we can all take proactive steps to overcome the biases that are holding us and our teams back. This will create stronger organizations, that are free of prejudice, intolerance, micro-aggressions, and discrimination, that can work effectively in harmony.