Bias is usually a generalisation based on limited experiences or examples, and at work it can close us down to new experiences with people.
We don’t always perceive bias. Sometimes it’s in ourselves or it may be lurking in the person right near you.
It may be:
- an assumption voiced as fact
- an irrational or flawed belief, despite all sound arguments to the contrary
- a person sticking to their beliefs and refusing to listen.
Bias can be disarming; a colleague you otherwise like laughingly admits to something that’s jarring – “I’ve never liked people who went to that university, so I’m certainly not hiring that graduate now” or “redheads are always weird – there’s no way I’d appoint one to that role”.
Dysrationalia is an extreme version of bias. It is has been referred to as flat earth thinking. Despite powerful proof, some people stubbornly maintain that the “evidence” of their eyes is good enough. Highly intelligent people can fall prey to unhealthy ideas, extreme beliefs, even investment schemes that are dodgy but ‘recommended’ by so called ‘good people’. It is an inability to think and behave rationally despite evidence.
It might be a thinking or learning disorder, or simply a high gullibility factor with people easily believing fraudulent people and their propositions as clever and never thinking to question.
So, what to do if you encounter bias in colleagues, managers, partners, staff, even clients and contractors?
No one is immune – firstly question yourself
We all share a tendency to bias, resulting from influences at home and at school and our peers. When you catch yourself thinking or making a biased comment, the first step is to ask: what basis do I really have for this notion? You may actually be correct in your perception, but don’t let it become your default position as things can suddenly alter. By nursing a bias, you are preventing a healthy flexible outlook that accepts change.
What about bias in the workplace?
You will know it exists when certain practices are perpetuated to people’s detriment. A boss keeps promoting people with similar personalities to him/her, while demoting or keeping others, or certain ‘types’ from career growth. This is definitely biased, and self-serving bias at that. Or an HR honcho favours recruits who are prepared to work seven days a week, owing to misplaced notions of a “productive” office.
This has no place at work (or in many other contexts for that matter). It is destructive to company practice and your team environment. If you are a manager, set the tone and request that such views be removed from the office orbit. Get factual and focus on evidence. Make sure the company code of professional and equitable conduct is clear. While people’s divergent views must be respected, employees are not hired to proselytise, and face disciplinary action if they persist.
Is a little bias OK?
Be alert to bias in ourselves or others. We are not impartial on all subject areas, try as we might. But we can be conscientious and sensitive, and train ourselves to examine facts, evidence and opinions, and to recognise when something is inappropriate or potentially harmful. And when it comes to recruitment we must guard against bias!
But we should see the humour in our biases, conscious or otherwise. Biases are often ludicrous. Comedians do this beautifully and ill-founded, silly prejudices melt away with a good cleansing belly laugh (at ourselves). Biases are evolving, and cultural shifts can mean change very much for the better.
Rude, insensitive, inappropriate bias
Foreigners shouldn’t interact with the public.
Women will get pregnant and leave.
People in wheelchairs won’t like working here.
Young people are lazy.
Older workers are no good with technology.
Fat people are less productive.
This kind of bias is ugly, insulting and limiting. They are statements many know are wrong, that don’t make sense, that are rude, provocative and insensitive – these are often crazy generalisations that can’t be proven and should not be perpetuated.
Desire for difference
It doesn’t work to say we are all the same, that there are no differences. Of course we are all different, maybe with certain similarities – but it is the diversity that make our teams stronger and more exciting. We should acknowledge individual differences and find out more about each other and get below the surface of any biases. We shouldn’t base our assessment of abilities only on one attribute.
How can we develop more open attitudes?
- Group discussion and formal training – Raise awareness, discuss and reflect on biases you might have as individuals, as a team or as a business. Try having each person present one of their own biases to the group – maybe one they used to have and have come to realise was faulty. Discuss where they might have come from, and why people might cling to that bias. If there are significant instances of discrimination in the workplace, this session would best be facilitated as a formal training.
- Introduce a code of conduct – Reinforce it at induction, training sessions and leadership meetings. Update it and ensure it is compliant with local legislation. Teach the skills of giving and receiving feedback and encourage staff to professionally confront prejudice and request that it change. Report breaches of conduct and if they contravene legislation e.g. bullying and harassment, a manager must take responsibility for getting the situation rectified.
- Mix it up! Make sure project teams, work assignments and workplace social events encourage a diverse set of people to communicate and work together. Work to build more one-on-one relationships through short-term paired peer mentoring. Rotate jobs and assignments. Change things around so people are encouraged to work with people of difference races, backgrounds, gender, age and experience.
- Debrief and share experiences. Discuss your experiences of working with people very different to you. Talk about discovering blind spots, biases and prejudices.
A culture starts at the top. Leaders must be open, aware and professional and create an environment that breeds that kind of behaviour.
Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace.