How unconscious bias affects employee experience – and how to reduce it

Three women in a conference room

6 mins, 15 secs read time

As companies strive to become more diverse and inclusive, unconscious bias often arises as part of the conversation. This is because many people’s attitudes and behaviors are based on mental shortcuts and stereotypes that are made without realizing it. Our brains have a natural tendency to make quick decisions based on limited information, and this can ultimately affect who we hire and promote.

As a CEO, these are topics I think about often. Our customers rely on Zugata to help their employees learn, grow, and perform to the best of their abilities. We need to ensure that we’re empowering companies to provide performance management and development that’s actionable and fair. I’d like to discuss a few of the ways that unconscious bias affects employee experience and share some tips to help limit these forms of bias.

Bias in the application and hiring process

The application and hiring processes are critical to supporting diversity and inclusion. If you’re not making candidates from diverse backgrounds feel welcome during these early stages, they will be unlikely to want to join your company.

Similar to me bias occurs when a person defaults to choosing a candidate who is most similar to them and can hurt candidates who are qualified but come from a different background than their interviewer. “Confirmation bias” leads people to make decisions based on their preconceived ideas. Joelle Emerson of Paradigm writes, “An interviewer typically develops a first impression of a candidate within a few minutes of meeting them; as a result of confirmation bias, the interviewer may then spend the rest of the interview searching for information to confirm that first impression.”

What I’ve mentioned so far relates to the candidate’s experience before they’re hired, but once they’ve joined a company there are other biases that we need to keep an eye out for.

Bias in the feedback process

Feedback is also a critical part of the employee experience. Whether it’s coming from a manager or peer, feedback is how employees learn about their performance. Unfortunately, not everyone receives the same quality of feedback, and this can have long-lasting implications on employees’ careers.

Gender bias occurs when people receive different feedback based on their gender. Women tend to receive more negative and subjective feedback that’s based on their personality rather than their actual work. At Zugata we’ve conducted our own research into the gap between work-based and personality-based feedback to men as opposed to women. I share more of the details of our research and what we learned from it here.

Feedback can also be affected by the halo effect, confirmation bias, and recency bias (where people tend to only remember what happened most recently). If you’d like to learn more about how to overcome bias in the feedback process, see our eBook on this topic, “How to Deliver High-Quality Feedback That Drives Performance.”

Bias in performance reviews

Bias in the performance review process can limit employees’ chances of being promoted and receiving raises, and it may ultimately lead them to leave your company in search of better opportunities elsewhere.

Idiosyncratic rater effect refers to the fact that people tend to rate another person’s skills based on their own strengths and weaknesses. In fact, some research has shown that as much as 61% of rating is a reflection of the individual who’s giving it rather than the person it’s supposed to be evaluating!

Central tendency error is a type of bias that occurs when using a five-point scale. Most reviewers will place whoever they’re evaluating in the middle and avoid giving a high or low score. Because everyone who’s being evaluated will tend to have a score that’s somewhere in the middle of the range, it’s not necessarily indicative of their true performance or abilities.

What comes next? How to reduce bias throughout the employee experience

Part of the trouble with unconscious bias is the fact that we don’t realize it’s affecting us. It’s unconscious, after all! This means that simply learning that it exists won’t really prevent us from being affected by it. However, there are a number of “guardrails” that we can put in place to try to limit the ways that bias can affect our decisions.

Using objective criteria is a great start. In the hiring process, this can look like a scorecard that outlines exactly which skills and traits are necessary to do the job. This will encourage the people making hiring decisions to think about the person who will be most likely to succeed rather than basing their decision on other less relevant factors. In the feedback and performance review process, this can involve evaluating people based on specific outcomes. Performance management consultant Marcus Buckingham argues that people are unreliable when it comes to rating the work of others, but remarkably consistent when describing their own future actions. As a result, he recommends asking managers to respond to prompts like, “This person is at risk for low performance” or “This person is ready for a promotion today.”

Following a structured template is another way to reduce bias. When conducting interviews, following a structured interview process ensures that candidates are answering the same questions and being assessed on the same criteria. In the feedback and performance management process, structured templates can put guardrails in place for employees and help them focus on delivering the most effective types of open-ended feedback. For example, a template like the Situation Behavior Impact model reminds those giving feedback to consider specific outcomes rather than the personality traits of the individual person they’re evaluating. Templates that prompt reviewers to focus on specific skills, like Zugata’s skills cards, can be used to mitigate bias and ensure employees with the same role or function will be evaluated against the same criteria as their peers.

Software can also put guardrails in place to help mitigate bias. Training employees about bias will not necessarily lead to long-term behavior change, but software can guide people towards making better decisions. Greenhouse recently launched Greenhouse Inclusion to help make recruiters and hiring managers aware of how bias may be affecting their decisions and course correct. Similarly, Zugata Insights helps our customers see how feedback in their organization may be biased. By measuring bias in feedback, companies can see if certain segments of employees are receiving less-optimal feedback and keep an eye on key metrics to inform their inclusion initiatives. This also helps measure progress over time and call attention to the most pressing issues.

I think we can all agree that there’s more work to be done. We still have a long way to go in terms of building inclusive cultures at all companies. But this is an exciting time—we have more tools at our disposal than ever to help identify and limit bias and create a more level playing field for all employees. And while it takes a concerted effort to limit bias from the employee experience, it’s absolutely worth it. When we promote inclusion, we all benefit.

The first moment of the employee experience happens in the hiring process. Watch to
this free webinar with HackerRank and Greenhouse to learn practical steps for implementing D&I tactics into the recruiting process.

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