How to Identify Hidden Biases

How to Identify Hidden Biases

Have you looked around the office and noticed the managers all happen to be male? Perhaps the clerical staff are predominantly female.  What is the general ratio between white and non-white employees? Is there a disabled member of your staff that doesn't seem to be advancing, even though he/she is as exemplary as his/her counterparts? These are the kinds of questions that need to be asked when it comes to identifying hidden biases in the workplace.


How to Identify Hidden Biases

If you are a Human Resources employee, the buck starts with you.  If you are not an HR staffer, but suspect discrimination in your place of business, take notes and perhaps you can work with HR to correct the situation.  Remember, hidden biases are rarely intentional so rather than taking a defensive stance, it may be better to step back from the situation. Approach it as if the workplace bias is unconscious.  This creates the space for remediation without angry or hurt feelings.

1) The First Step - Look Within

You may be surprised to learn that you have a few hidden biases unconsciously lurking in your very own mind.  Discrimination, especially in its disguised form of hidden biases, is responsible for hiring discrepancies, uneven pay, and unfair access to career training that would promote or advance employees. In fact, Harvard University has launched a research project to demonstrate how common hidden biases are.  The researchers found that 70% (possibly even higher) of hidden biases are directed towards African-Americans, the elderly, the disabled, and overweight individuals.  It's also interesting to note that minorities harbor the same level of "bias" as non-minority counterparts.  

So really, none of us is off the hook. If you are interested in finding out where your own hidden biases may lie, you can take any number of Harvard University's Project Implicit Bias Tests.

2) Identify Blatant Discrepancies

Numbers don't lie.  The second step you and/or HR can take is to use statistics to create a "Bias Dashboard" of sorts that can show where discrimination and professional imbalance may be lurking.  They should identify all of the employees in terms of race, gender, known sexual orientation, etc. and run different analyses based on hiring practices, training opportunities, pay rates, promotion rates, etc.  Hidden biases will immediately pop up as gaping holes, glaringly obvious gaffs in pay discrepancies, and well-deserved promotions that have slipped by the noses of those in charge.

3) Evaluate Employee Manuals and Review Procedures in Terms of Language

Are company policies written in gender balanced language? All documents need to be oriented towards men and women.  Companies need to have written policies for accommodating employees with disabilities so when a disabled person is hired, a protocol is immediately in place.  Are reviews direct and to the point about each employee's performance?  For example, "Susie is a good employee" says absolutely nothing about her work.  "Susie is a good team player who reaches beyond the company standards and always completes her tasks ahead of schedule" is a more legitimate comment.  

4) Review Hiring Procedures

The next time there is an opportunity to hire a new employee, make a close examination of the hiring practices.  Who receives callbacks?  A recent study on resume review procedures found that "White sounding names" were called back significantly more often than applicants with "African sounding names".  This is a great example of hidden bias, or discrimination, at the ground level of a business.  One could argue that it is intentional.  However, isn't it human nature to gravitate towards the familiar? If hidden bias has already elevated a Caucasian HR member in charge of hiring, she may be embarrassed to call people whose names are unfamiliar.  So, she unconsciously gravitates towards the names she can easily pronounce and leave messages for. Once illuminated, this type of discrimination can be eliminated immediately.

5) Employee Reviews Must Be Done Regularly and Consistently

Employee reviews should be brought out and viewed objectively. Are they handled in the same manner from employee to employee? Is there written documentation for each review? Employee reviews should be done across the board.  Every employee, from managers to part-time staff, need to be reviewed in a consistent manner on a 90-day, bi-annual and/or annual basis. Reviews must be shared with employees so everyone is aware of which areas of job performance are commendable, which areas need improvement, etc.  Evaluations must be signed, and copies should be given to employees so they have a vested interest in improved work performance and have evidence to back up requests for raises or to support promotion eligibility.

Discrimination, especially in its disguised form of hidden biases, is responsible for hiring discrepancies, uneven pay, and unfair access to career training that would promote or advance employees. Learning to identify hidden bias is the first step towards eliminating bias from the workplace.