Eliminating unconscious bias


Sujata Chaudhri

Eliminating unconscious bias

Vitalii Vodolazskyi / Shutterstock.com

The uncomfortable truth is that we all make judgements about other people. Sujata Chaudhri of Sujata Chaudhri IP Attorneys explores how to minimise this bias for a happy, productive workplace.

My introduction to unconscious bias came in 2010, when I had just become an equity partner at a US law firm. At a social gathering after work one evening, I told one of the attendees (a South Asian male lawyer) that I worked at a law firm—without specifying my designation. But he had automatically assumed that I, an Indian woman, could not be a lawyer in a law firm in the US, much less an equity partner.

Nearly a decade later, with some conscious work on my own perceptions and thoughts, I endeavour to create a workplace that is inclusive and, consequently, more productive, innovative, and happier.

The many forms of bias

Many studies, over the years, have shown that a diverse workforce outperforms a homogenous workforce. Yet, it is natural for a person’s decisions to be guided by their perceptions, preferences, and instinctive feelings—or, in short, biases. A bias can be conscious (explicit bias) or unconscious (implicit bias). Renee Navarro, vice chancellor of diversity and outreach at the University of Southern California, in an introduction to the university’s diversity initiative, defines unconscious bias as the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions and decisions.

A large body of compelling research has demonstrated how unconscious, automatically activated, and pervasive mental processes manifest across a variety of contexts. Author and gender equality advocate Kim Elsesser has opined, in an article titled ‘Unequal Pay, Unconscious Bias, And What to Do About It’, that we become aware of these stereotypes at a young age, and, as adults, both men and women are likely to apply them. 

Biases based on gender, age and religion are the most common and recognised forms of unconscious biases. However, there are other forms of bias that pervade workplaces and these must be addressed as well.

Some of these biases are as follows:

  • Affinity/likeness bias (the human tendency to naturally gravitate to people that have similar qualities and thoughts leading to an individual becoming more favourable because of common skills and interests etc.).
  • The halo effect (attribution of positive characteristics to someone based on a single well-known trait).
  • The horn effect (the opposite of the halo effect, which causes one to form a negative impression of someone on the basis of a single trait or experience).
  • Attribution bias (a judgement or decision on another’s behaviour as a result of prior observations and interactions which have no bearing on the existing situation).
  • Recency bias (remembering the most recent occurrence of something, rather than an overall accumulation of occurrences, events or performances).
  • Confirmation bias (making a certain decision and then seeking out information that supports that decision while turning a blind eye to opposing facts or standpoints).
  • Status quo bias (one’s preference for things to remain as they are and oppose change).
  • Anchor bias (reliance on the first piece of information received to base a decision leading to a narrow perspective).
  • Authority bias (an idea or opinion is given more attention or thought to be more accurate because it originated from an authority figure).
  • Beauty bias (discrimination on the basis of appearances).

Rooting out bias

The threshold question that arises is whether such implicit or unconscious biases can be eliminated?  While it may be difficult to eliminate such biases, it is totally within our control to minimise them.  Elsesser, in the article referred to above, argues that: “unconscious behaviour is incredibly hard to change, because it is, indeed, unconscious”. As human beings and managers, it is important to be willing to recognise that each one of us has some element of implicit bias.

“It is important to have junior and mid-level associates report to several supervisors. This system will mean that each associate receives multiple inputs on their performance.”

As a first step, it is extremely important to be honest with oneself about stereotypes that may affect you. It is also important to be mindful that there is evidence that raising awareness of the prevalence of stereotyping can increase the use of stereotypes. However, it is not a lost cause.  A system of checks and balances needs to be created in organisations. 

Hiring procedures are one of the first windows into an organisation. Checkpoints in the hiring process, for example, can help leaders stop and consider their decisions from a more critical perspective. It is imperative that, in hiring processes, efforts should be made towards attaining diversity in the workforce. Some good practices are to avoid certain wording in job advertisements. For instance, words, such as “competitive” and “determined” may lead candidates to perceive that they would not fit the criteria.

Instead, words such as “collaborative” and “cooperative” are preferable. It is wise to replace terms that may unintentionally indicate bias with neutral alternatives. Research has shown that using words such as “build” and “create” in job descriptions can help minimise unconscious bias. Some other measures include multiple interview levels, administering writing tests that are standardised and, as far as possible, putting the likeability of a candidate on a lower scale compared to other criteria.

Appraisals and work assignments

Also, CVs should be looked at without consideration of the candidates’ names that may, possibly, indicate their demographic origin and background. Appraisals and remuneration are other areas where biases tend to creep in. It is imperative that appraisers keep detailed notes or a year-round journal assessing a person’s performance, rather than waiting for an annual performance review.

“Exit interviews are an effective forum to sensitise the firm’s management to any instances of unconscious bias.”

If an appraiser waits until the end of the year to measure performance, there may be problems with accuracy because past performance might be left out. A bi-annual feedback system could solve a potential problem of recency biases creeping into an appraisal system.  It is also important to have junior and mid-level associates report to several supervisors. This system will mean that each associate receives multiple inputs on their performance. Such multi-person reviews are a great way to eliminate bias as they allow the ‘averaging out’ of ratings.

Linked to performance reviews is the allocation of work assignments. Allocation of assignments must be done fairly.

A transparent and ongoing appraisal system leads to a fair remuneration system, one that is based on merit as opposed to being based on other criteria such as recency or affinity biases. 

My firm, Sujata Chaudhri IP Attorneys, in its eight-year journey, continues to have ground to cover when it comes to overcoming unconscious biases.

However, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the firm has made big strides over the years in addressing the issue.  I strongly believe that, if the firm is to become an institution, it must have diversity in thought; a strong culture of transparency, including, in hiring, remuneration/incentives and promotions; and integrity and truthfulness.

These cornerstones have been at the forefront of thought at the firm. Hiring procedures at the firm include multiple levels of interviews and a writing test, resulting in the minimisation of any implicit biases. Final hiring decisions are collective, rather than being based solely on my inputs. This approach allows for diverse viewpoints to be considered and has resulted in superior hiring decisions.

Appraisals and promotions at the firm are purely merit-based and the built-in checks and balances have ensured that implicit biases are minimised. For instance, the firm’s partners encourage the lawyers to work with more than one supervisor with a view to eliminate any element of bias in the appraisal process.

The firm has found that exit interviews are an effective forum to sensitise its management to any instances of unconscious bias. We have also found that periodic informal dinners/events, at which employees interact casually, can go a long way in mitigating effects of any individual perceptions that may have been built up at the workplace.

 In addition, the firm organises sensitisation and feedback sessions for its employees with the objective of making them aware of implicit biases although experience has shown that such ‘formal’ sessions are not as effective as other ‘less direct’ sensitisation methods. 

Different perspectives

I have tried to broaden my outlook by listening and taking suggestions from colleagues at all levels and appreciating different points of view that may not be necessarily the same as mine. This approach, not only helps me get different perspectives on an issue, but also makes colleagues feel that there is a level playing field at the firm, and that nobody falls out of favour simply because their views are not the same as mine. The approach raises the engagement level and commitment of colleagues at the firm. 

The need for identification and minimisation of unconscious bias is apparent. If left unattended, unconscious bias can lead to toxic environments, bullying, exclusion and harassment and, in turn, cripples mental health, employee morale, productivity, as well as the diversity of a workplace. Further, it may also negatively impact retention, potential of employees and hinder the hiring process. In support of a more equal, fair and healthier workplace, it is vital to identify, evaluate and minimise biases, particularly unconscious ones.

Sujata Chaudhri is the founder and managing partner of Sujata Chaudhri IP Attorneys, a boutique IP firm in India. She can be contacted at: sujata@sc-ip.in

Today’s top stories

Unilever faces claims of ‘covert’ TM transfer

Ed Sheeran to face trial again over copyright infringement

Sujata Chaudhri IP Attorneys, unconscious bias, diversity and inclusion, stereotypes, hiring procedures, harassment