Understanding and recognizing bias in the workplace

office meeting

By Amanda Hinojosa, Howard University

Bias is a preference or tendency which can be for or against a person, group, or thing when compared to another. This definition suggests that bias is something prevalent in all aspects of life. While some biases, like your preference to eat at your favorite restaurant, may be harmless, other biases can lead to unfair conditions and judgment, and unethical discrimination. Prejudice is a type of bias against a person or a group of people that is based on preconceived judgment or opinion. When people act on these prejudicial attitudes, it is called discrimination.

Bias can be conscious or unconscious, and it can have serious implications in the workplace. For a business professional or a business owner, understanding, recognizing, and addressing bias, prejudice, and discrimination is an essential part of being a leader with integrity.

Conscious bias

Conscious bias refers to the attitudes, inclinations, and beliefs that we are aware we hold about someone or something.

What biases do you hold and how might they influence the choices you make at work? It is important to recognize the influence of bias on the decisions you make for your organization. When considering potential options, think about the different preferences you have that may be influencing your choices.

Once you have become aware of the biases you hold, you can attempt to limit the influence of harmful biases on your decisions.

Unconscious bias

Unconscious biases are preferences that you may not be aware that you have, even if you engage in self-reflection.

For example, you might not have a conscious preference for a certain type of job candidate, but your hiring decisions might indicate that you are more likely to hire people that are similar to you. Thus, even if you are not consciously saying that you prefer candidates similar to you, your decisions reflect that you do have such a preference.

Prejudice and discrimination

Prejudice is based on preconceived judgments about a person or a group of people. This is harmful because it means you reach a judgment before actually gathering information. When people act on these uninformed judgments, it becomes discrimination. Discrimination leads to unfair advantages and disadvantages for groups of people based on prejudicial attitudes.

To lead with integrity, you must work to reduce prejudice and discrimination. It is important to ensure that everyone has the same opportunities regardless of their gender, race, age, or background.

How can you reduce bias, prejudice, and discrimination?

Understanding the different types of biases and their impact can help people to recognize their own biases and know how to improve. If you recognize that everyone has preferences, some founded, some not, you can then attempt to limit the negative impact of bias on your decisions. One of the best ways to reduce bias in your decision-making is by having clear objectives for decisions you are making. This helps reduce the influence of prejudicial attitudes in decision-making and, in turn, helps reduce discrimination.

For example, if you are making a hiring decision, it helps to clearly outline the tasks one would perform within the job you are hiring for. By then structuring your assessment of candidates around those tasks and focusing on those who are best-qualified, you will provide the best for your company. Clear objectives help make sure that you and others are hiring based on reasonable, job-related information and not based on uninformed biases. In another incoming blog feature, there is more information about reducing bias and discrimination in the hiring process.

As a leader, you can work to confront bias, prejudice, and discrimination with your own self-reflection. In doing so, you model the behaviors that others can replicate, which helps to create a more inclusive environment and find the best talent for your organization.

Related resources

Google re:Work’s lesson on Unbiasing
Society for Human Resource Management’s resources for reducing biases in hiring
Academic articles on reducing discrimination in the workplace in the journal Personnel Assessment and Decisions

Amanda Hinojosa is an assistant professor of management in the Howard University School of Business. She teaches and researches on topics related to leadership, recruitment and selection, and diversity.

The views and opinions expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the YLAI Network or the U.S. government.

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