Most people are prejudiced about anything

Consider the effects of unconscious bias on employee productivity

After completing this lesson, you will be able to do the following tasks:

  • Identifying bias and unconscious (implied) bias
  • Describe the effects of unconscious bias

Bias: what is it and where does it come from

Most people feel that they are not prejudiced. You are also likely to believe that you are acting ethically and not biased. In the workplace, we tend to think of ourselves as good decision-makers who objectively assess a job applicant or an employee's performance and come to a rational and fair conclusion about a particular business problem or situation. Still, after more than 20 years of research, it is clear that we are all biased.

Why do you think that is the case? Let's take a closer look at this so that we can understand why we make countless decisions without even realizing them.

11 million. That's the amount of information our brain is confronted with at any given moment, according to Timothy Wilson, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and author of Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious. Don't you think that's pretty impressive too? You may be even more amazed that the brain can only process 40 pieces of information. So what does our brain do? It creates abbreviations and uses previous experience to make guesses. This process is known by researchers as "unconscious bias".

Here is a great short video from PwC on unconscious bias and what is called blind spots.

Accordingly, it is a natural process in our brain to take in information, register it and classify it as good or bad, comfortable or uncomfortable. It is quite normal for us to have blind spots or to be biased. We all feel the same way. But as humans we have the ability to recognize this bias, whether unconsciously or consciously, because it can have negative and unfair effects on our fellow human beings. We believe that we make informed and rational decisions, and our intentions are generally good. But our subconscious is working against us and we have to keep it in check.

Bias and Subconscious Bias: The Effects on Race and Gender

Bias research conducted by British business psychologists Tinu Cornish and Dr. Pete Jones (2011) found that almost 40% of people have an unconscious bias towards certain genders and races. This shows that we must make a conscious effort to break down unconscious biases in order to ensure equal opportunities in our organizations and society.

Below are some examples of the dangers posed by our unconscious bias. Researchers at the Women in Science & Engineering Leadership Institute, University of Wisconsin, Madison, conducted a study of racial prejudice and guesswork. Here are the results:

  • When they were presented with photos of men with a similar physique, the test subjects rated the sportiness of the black men higher than that of the white men.
  • The ability to express themselves should be evaluated on the basis of defined vocabulary. The test subjects allegedly rated black applicants worse than white ones.
  • When different, fictitious names were assigned to résumés, it became clear that applicants with "white-sounding names" were more likely to be invited to an interview than applicants with "black-sounding names" with the same qualifications.

In the now famous Heidi / Howard Roizen experiment, scientists at Columbia Business School asked students to evaluate the résumé of an entrepreneur named Howard Roizen. He'd worked at Apple, then started his own software company, and was a temporary partner in a venture capital company. He was considered a competent networker and had powerful friends, including Bill Gates. His colleagues described him as a "driving force" and "business leader". The students considered him the ideal candidate for a position in the company. He tackled tasks with determination and was personable.

The same résumé was given to other students for evaluation, but the name here was Heidi Roizen. The result? The students rated Heidi fundamentally differently from Howard. Heidi was perceived as a more selfish and less desirable candidate than Howard, although she was rated equally for her efficiency. The evaluators said of Howard: "I would like to meet this man. He is apparently very successful." They said about Heidi that she was apparently "very self-centered" and "aggressive".

As humans, we have the ability to think critically and analyze. In the workplace, it is important for us to recognize when we are relying on our impulses, which are determined by unconscious bias, so that we ultimately make informed and rational decisions and do not inadvertently exclude someone.

In the next unit, we'll learn more about workplace bias and how it affects employee performance.