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Neutralizing the Impact of Unconscious Bias During the COVID-19 Crisis

Virtually every aspect of life and the economy has been changed in some way due to COVID-19, and we still don’t have a full picture of the impact.

What we do know is that businesses in almost every industry are being hit—hard. Small businesses are often the most vulnerable; medium-sized businesses, and even large corporations, are also struggling and challenged with the difficult scenario of having to furlough or lay off employees to reduce their payroll expenses.

In the midst of this unprecedented time, we want to be sure that these difficult decisions are rooted in a fair analysis of performance and a strategic assessment of company priorities. While the average business owner or manager may not even realize it, his or her decision-making process is often influenced by an unconscious bias based on any number of characteristics, such as the college/university someone graduated from, physical appearance, as well as their gender, race or ethnicity, age, accent, socioeconomic status and much more. In fact, Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Erik Kandel believes that as much as 90% of the human mind functions unconsciously.

We believe that the majority of people are well-intentioned, however, all of us bring decades of socialization into the workplace – and that socialization creates blind spots for us all – blind spots that ultimately impact our interactions, relationships, and decisions. One of our wise consultants, Kendall C. Wright, says:

Bias is an issue of conditioning – not an issue of character.

The reality is that research supports this—unconscious bias likely plays a greater role in workplace decisions than we may think. Consider these findings:

  • Science faculty (comprised of both men and women) rated male applicants for a laboratory manager position as significantly more competent and hirable than female applicants. Faculty also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career-mentoring to the male applicant (Moss-Racusin et al, 2012).
  • Resumes with White-sounding names sent to help-wanted ads were more likely to receive callbacks for interviews compared to resumes with African American sounding names. Resumes with white-sounding names received 50% more callbacks for interviews (Bertrand & Mullainathan, 2004).

Mitigate Unconscious Bias with Self-Assessment Questions

Bias is a natural process of the brain and all of us have biases. This does not make us inherently bad people. It’s our humanness. Because of that, it is our leadership responsibility to become aware of our biases so that we can manage them more effectively within the workplace and prevent them from negatively impacting our relationships and decisions we make on a daily basis.

Fortunately, unconscious bias in the workplace is something that can be managed through awareness and self-reflection.

When you find yourself in the position of having to make personnel decisions in response to COVID-19, take pause and consider the following questions as you navigate through your decision-making process:

1. Am I leaning toward letting this person go because they are younger or older than the other employees?

You may mistakenly view a younger employee as having fewer financial responsibilities or more easily able to find new employment. According to a survey conducted by TD Ameritrade, 19% of Millennials indicated that they were financially supporting their parents; the same percentage of boomers said they were supporting their adult children.

Conversely, you may view an older employee as being close to retirement age, which could assuage your guilt at letting them go. However, age should not factor into your final decision.

2. Am I leaning toward letting this person go because of their marital/family status?

Are you assuming that because an employee is single with no kids, they have less need for the job? Are you assuming that a woman employee is more expendable because she has a husband who is (or who could be) the primary breadwinner of their household?

In 2017, available data indicated that 41% of mothers were the sole or primary breadwinners for their families, earning at least half of their total household income.

3. Are you allowing your personal relationships with certain employees to influence your decision?

This is known as an Affinity Bias. A good example is if there’s an employee that you’re friends with outside of work. It’s completely natural to gravitate toward people who are similar to how we define ourselves and who make us feel comfortable. Unfortunately, affinity bias can strongly influence our personnel decisions if we aren’t consciously paying attention to it.

4. Are you making personnel decisions based on someone’s performance or potential?

Individuals who fall into the dominant or majority group of an organization are more likely to be evaluated on their potential. Conversely, those who fall into the non-dominant or minority group (typically women and people of color) are more likely to be evaluated on their performance. This seemingly subtle, but powerful distinction, can lead to what’s referred to as Confirmation Bias – the tendency to subconsciously look for evidence to support our opinions or judgments about someone. This occurs naturally because we want to believe that we are right and that our assessment of someone has been accurate.

As you make life-impacting decisions around your human capital, stay mindful of your evaluation process, and ensure that you are maintaining consistent and objective criteria across the board.

These are just a few initial questions to ask yourself. It’s important to take some time and self-reflect to make sure the choices you make are based on measurable data and what will benefit your organization the most.

Tactics for Neutralizing the Impact of Unconscious Bias

  • Pause to Ponder – pay attention to your initial thought process and/or snap decisions
  • Watch for Affinity Bias – who do you react positively to, and why?
  • Broaden your definition of success – when you think of what success looks like, what picture comes to mind?
  • Maintain consistent & objective criteria

Everyone has biases. What matters is that you approach them with mindfulness, awareness, and a desire to mitigate their impact as a manager or leader. This will allow you to manage and lead with greater awareness of your biases – rather than as a consequence of them.