Systemic bias, systematically removed

April 20, 2023

Biases are preconceived notions we have that are often rooted in our upbringing, environment, and experiences. Biases can be positive or negative and are used to form opinions, judgments, or decisions about people, groups, and ideas.

To better understand how to make feedback and promotions more structured, fair, and transparent, I sat down with my friend, Gian Franco, Founder of Stereotype Project, to chat about bias in the workplace. 

What is bias?

We all have biases - they are a part of human nature and are formed through our experiences, beliefs, and values. However, these biases can create systemic disadvantages and a workplace imbalance, especially when employers and employees don’t realize how pervasive bias really is. When left unchecked, biases can lead to discrimination and prejudice. 

Studies have shown that systemic bias exists in everything from hiring practices and performance reviews to salary and promotion decisions. For example, employers may be biased toward certain demographic backgrounds (e.g., white males over minorities). This bias can lead to unequal opportunities for employees, creating an environment where certain people are at a disadvantage in the workplace.

According to Gian, we all have prejudice, probably more than any of us realize, because we are “wired to put things in boxes…to sort of shortcut,” which is for our own survival because it would be impossible to consciously think about every decision we need to make in a day. The problem comes when we use those mental shortcuts, also called heuristics, to interact with others. Gian says, “That's when the shortcuts that can potentially disenfranchise an individual or an entire group of people become really, really dangerous…[When] people fully understand that it's truly universal and that we're all susceptible to it, it's only then that you can start making conscious decisions to combat it.”

How do we systematically reduce bias?

The best way to combat bias is through understanding and evaluating personal and organizational biases. By examining our own biases and challenging them, we can create an environment that values impartiality and equality. 

Fortunately, there are steps employers and employees can take to recognize and challenge systemic bias in the workplace, both individually and systematically (meaning, across the whole system). 

Interrupt bias individually

First, we can all learn to become conscious of our own biases. Gian says that when you and your colleagues and senior leaders bring mental shortcuts to work and apply them in an organization, these biases now happen at scale. So, stopping this chain begins with individual realization and active awareness. 

After you’ve accepted that bias exists and have identified some of your own, the next step is to analyze your thoughts and behaviors and start to correct yourself. This is also a place to begin accepting feedback when you are biased. One way that you can test your own bias is through a free online Implicit Bias test

Finally, on an individual level, you can start to evaluate your network. If the people you are connecting with daily are quite homogenous, look for ways to get connected with different cultures, people, and experiences. One easy way to make this change in your daily life is to seek media sources that center voices of a different demographic than you're used to seeing. For example,  watch a show with an authentically written lead or tune into a news source with a host from a different demographic. There are many forms of media that can introduce us to new worlds. The more we are exposed to diverse groups, situations, and cultures, the more we will become open to them - exposure facilitates learning.

Once you’ve started addressing individual bias by cycling through these steps, you can interrupt at it at a systematic level.

Reduce bias across your organization

The general themes behind reducing organizational bias are standardization, anonymization, transparency, and fairness.

Standardized feedback is competency-driven, meaning that it is constructive and contributes to professional development. By focusing on competencies rather than personality traits, you’ll mitigate the systemic implications of bias in career progression. Giving feedback on personality traits is a slippery slope because it puts value judgments on people's personalities or cultural affinities. An example is men telling women that they need to be friendlier or smile more - it's a microaggression. To solve this, there are many different approaches to feedback that you can standardize to ensure you're focusing on the right things.

Feedback should be given and documented frequently to reduce recency bias. Make time for regular career conversations with all of your employees. Weekly check-ins are a great way to stay connected with your direct reports, maintain a pulse on your team members’ successes and challenges, and make documentation more manageable. Reviewing documentation during performance reviews helps you avoid recency bias during performance reviews. 

Gian also mentioned that diversity in the interview pool is a great place to interrupt organizational bias. Many people claim there's a "pipeline problem," but the issue is where candidates are being sourced. For example, are new grad roles only being sourced from predominantly white universities, or are HBCUs being included in the recruitment process? Recruiters who want to ensure a diverse candidate pool should first “understand the value that diversity brings into your organization…that there’s going to be a return on investment [with] the diversity of thought.”

Breaking down barriers by diversifying your talent pool is a great start, but creating inclusive hiring experiences is another important step to reducing bias in your organization. Start by focusing on creating competency-based job descriptions, then align your interview plan and question rubric with the “must haves” to hit the ground running in a new job. These activities will create the structure for new employees to know what is expected and how they can grow in their roles, thus increasing the probability of success, engagement, and retention. Adopting a diverse interview panel or using an interview partner will decrease bias even more.  

Ultimately, systemic bias leads to unfavorable outcomes for all employees. By taking the necessary steps to recognize, challenge, and change it, we can create a positive and productive work environment for all. As Gian says, “All of that value is there to be unlocked.” 

Learn more about how Pando helps our customers build a culture of growth and equity by making feedback and promotions more fair and transparent.