Updated: Jul 4
Arjun Paleri and Jaya Ramachandran
Visualise this - you are interacting with a person who is smartly dressed and looking impeccable. However, you note that the person is not fluent in English. - what would your immediate assumption be?
The assumptions made by most readers indicate “unconscious bias” or “implicit bias” and result from an individual's personal experiences. It is often described as a biological process where individuals carry prejudices and make judgements based on what they are familiar with and what they consider as “normal circumstances”. While most bias is not fundamentally hostile, it affects one’s ability to make objective decisions.
Let’s take another example - A nurse has an excellent track record of 10 years in a top city hospital and is now being promoted to the position of Head Nurse at the same hospital. Most people who read this sentence would automatically picture the nurse to be a woman.
Bias exists in every facet of life and invariably seeps into the workplace. These are based on notions, firm beliefs, and attitude that are built over time from past experiences (either our own experiences or of others) and exists subconsciously in our mind. At the workplace, it unconsciously impacts the way we:
speak and interact with people;
think and respond to situations, and
derive conclusions and make decisions.
Unconscious bias has a much more profound influence on the way we think and the decisions we make than we realise. And while we may not be consciously discriminating against someone or making decisions which leave out a small group (or even a single person), this could leave people with a feeling that they do not belong and that they don’t play a valued role at such a workspace.
In the previous articles, we dealt with how organisations can handle diversity in the workplace, where we primarily focused on the implementation of a DE&I strategy (You can read our articles here). This article discusses how organisations can address unconscious bias by taking a different perspective and redirecting the same to have a more inclusive workplace.
Why social inclusion matters?
Many organisations look at diversity, equity and inclusion as a metric to be fulfilled. The problem with this approach is that while it will be quite easy for organisations to hire resources from diverse backgrounds, it will be equally difficult for them to retain such people. Representation cannot be a token gesture. People need to feel a sense of belonging, and that will only come if they are truly valued as a member of the group and feel actively involved. Discussions around bias often centre around identifying the surface gaps, fixing them with a new structure, and providing training. These are good starting points, but organisations must take more initiatives to redirect bias, even if eliminating the same is impossible.
Laws addressing social inclusion
The reservation system in India was the first system devised to touch upon social inclusion and address discrimination, which in its present state addresses caste, religion and gender-based discrimination. Apart from this, other legislations, such as the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 and the Equal Remuneration Act 1976, were enacted in the consequent years to address issues related to pay parity. And in the last decade, statutes such as the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 (“RPWD”), the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019 and the Human Immunodeficiency Virus and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (Prevention and Control) Act, 2017 highlighted the increasing need for social inclusion.
The laws mentioned above address the issue in the following ways:
Obligations: They impose obligations on the employer and prohibit discrimination. An example of such obligation under the RPWD includes putting up of equal opportunity policy which affirms the non-discrimination principle.
Grievance Redressal: In addition to the obligations, some of these laws also require employers to establish a grievance redressal system through which complaints indicating discrimination can be filed by individuals.
Penalties/Imprisonment: Sufficient penalties or imprisonment in case of deviation or discrimination.
As seen above, the common thread in these legislations is to address discrimination, which results from bias or unconscious bias. Simply put, the legal system only addresses the negative outcome of one’s prejudices, and it is impossible for the law to regulate one’s predispositions. To be truly inclusive requires organisations to look beyond the law.
How do you redirect unconscious bias?
The following are some methods to consciously redirect bias:
Eliminating information: While making decisions pertaining to people, certain details that may unconsciously create a bias can be masked. For example, during the recruitment and promotion processes, the general information about the candidates or employees, as the case may be, which are not relevant in the decision-making can be anonymized (such as name, age, gender and disabilities). This partial anonymization will automatically eliminate prejudices from the mind of hiring managers and managers evaluating performances and ensure people are hired and promoted based on their competency.
Interactive workshops as opposed to traditional training: Companies must consider organizing interactive workshops where participants can assess their unexamined behaviour.
Responsibility of leaders: Apart from the Human Resource team, leaders at every stage, such as the managers, must take up accountability to demonstrate an unbiased workplace and also initiate conversations in casual settings to encourage employees to share their perspectives.
Educate yourself and widen your circle: Learn about different social groups and meet new people. Interacting with people who come from different social backgrounds helps in getting to understand different perspectives and understand people better. Also, consciously reflect on questions like, are there people you are more inclined towards while allotting important pieces of work? Are you less inclined towards certain people? Do you avoid interacting with someone in your free time and prefer to spend it only with a certain set of people? These questions help examine any affinity bias that a person may have unconsciously.
Provide reasoned decisions: Before taking a final decision on any subject matter dealing with people, doubt your own objectivity. Your decision must be backed by reasons for it. Writing these reasons down helps you question your own assumptions and preferences of which the conscious mind is not aware.
Collecting feedback: Feedback can be taken regularly to analyse employee expectations and experiences.
Laydown processes: Do you tend to give second chances to someone and not to someone else? Laying down standard processes to be followed ensures everyone gets a fair chance and ensures you are not unconsciously favouring someone.