After the 2018 Starbucks scandal in which a manager called the police on some African American customers, the company reacted by implementing racial bias training for all employees. This decision drove the problem of bias into the spotlight and spurred many companies to examine how they train employees around the issue.
In the Starbucks case, racial bias led to a discriminatory act. By its very nature, bias is harder to understand and detect than overt discrimination—until the former results in the latter.
The product of deeply embedded human behavior—historical relationships and prejudices, cultural identity and affiliation, layers of social interaction and experiences that might go back generations—bias can cause us to act in ways that negatively impact others, out in the world and at work.
A universal problem
The term “unconscious bias” deserves some unpacking. Bias is not always conscious. One of the most insidious things about bias is that much of it develops through socialization, without our full awareness. The result is that we frequently don’t realize or acknowledge the extent of our bias—though we often do know if we “don’t like” someone. For these reasons, some scientists prefer the term “implicit bias” as a more accurate way to describe what is commonly known as unconscious bias. At Spot, we simply use “bias.”
Just because bias isn’t always conscious doesn’t mean that we’re not responsible for its consequences. Our good (or neutral) intentions don’t let us off the hook.
Everyone is subject to the pitfalls of bias, including a company’s leadership, HR team, managers, and team members. Bias can be subtle, leaving employees unsure whether they’re experiencing it or not. Documented examples of bias in the workplace include:
- Not promoting female or minority employees because they seem “too aggressive” for a leadership role
- Not hiring someone who doesn’t seem similar to you or who doesn’t pass the “beer test”
- Passing over resumes with foreign-sounding names
- Not hiring women who have children, fearing a lack of commitment to their work
- Making negative assumptions based on physical features such as height or weight
The high cost of bias
A 2017 study shed light on the high cost of unconscious bias in the workplace. 66 percent of the 500 participants said that the biased treatment they experienced had a large impact on their morale, motivation, commitment, and desire to advance in their organization.
“We cataloged hundreds of moments when victims were left questioning others’ intentions and their own perceptions,” said David Maxfield, a VP at leadership training company VitalSmarts and one of the people who conducted the study. “At best this shadowy bias is exhausting, at worst it’s soul-destroying for both the individual and the organization.”
Organizations are already competing for top talent at a time when Glassdoor reports that 78 percent of employees want their employers to be inclusive and treat everyone equally. HR teams cannot afford to ignore the impact of bias on recruiting, retention, and their company’s bottom line.
But you’ll need to go beyond preventative training to create a truly inclusive workplace. You'll need to create an environment where employees feel encouraged to speak up about bias.
Bias and HR processes
Training can go a long way towards increasing awareness of how bias leads to discrimination in the workplace. But according to Laura Castillo-Page, who directs diversity policy and programs for American Medical Colleges, “It’s also important to create and reinforce procedures and processes to make sure bias isn’t happening.”
In examining barriers to reporting workplace harassment and discrimination, Dr. Julia Shaw, Spot’s Chief Scientist, found that fear of retaliation or judgment is the number one reason people don’t come forward: “In-person reports can make employees feel judged because interviewers are human beings and humans bring biases. So understandably, people are concerned about having to sit across from someone and share their story.”
The case for removing the human
HR departments are looking for new technological solutions to streamline their processes and take bias out of the equation. Spot is one such tool, offering an anonymous reporting system that uses AI for the interactions between employees and HR where bias tends to creep in.
Humans have a tendency to introduce bias when getting an account of an incident. We ask questions based on how trustworthy someone seems (a difficult thing to measure in an unbiased way), what parts of their story we paid attention to, things we know that the employee may not know, or details that we think they should have mentioned but didn’t.
With Spot, employees can use an AI chatbot to document and report what happened, and HR can use the bot to follow up while still protecting employee anonymity. Spot cannot interrupt, get distracted, or judge prematurely when the employee is writing their initial account. Instead, it uses natural language processing to ask more questions based on initial details the employee gives.
Spot yields richer, more detailed reports and can help HR identify patterns that might indicate how unconscious bias is affecting an organization. Catch the effects of bias early, before it escalates, so you can take proactive steps to mitigate legal risk, productivity loss, and churn.