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Workplace Bias is Real: Combat it and Attract the Best Global Talent

The shift to remote and hybrid working models is often accompanied by workplace bias, with remote workers being at a clear disadvantage. Here are some concrete steps that all organizations can take in order to effectively combat workplace bias.

Sigmund Freud, through his famous Iceberg Analogy, illustrated that the unconscious, what’s not apparent at first, plays a huge role in behavior and decision-making. Simply put, the brain uses mental shortcuts based on past experiences to arrive at decisions. Think of it as the hunter-gatherer in you using a quick pathway to process tons of information. It’s a great route for survival, but is it a recipe for success—and that too in the modern hybrid workplace?

For instance, anchoring bias affects our judgment to the extent that we favor the initial experience or first bit of available information. One may make adjustments, but these are “typically insufficient” suggest Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, psychologists of Nobel Prize fame.

Think of the trajectory of remote work:

Month% of employed persons who tele-worked or worked at home for pay at any time in the last 4 weeks due to COVID-19
May 202035.4
August 202024.3
November 202021.8
February 202122.7
May 202116.6
August 202113.4

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Is remote work shrinking because of the benefits of on-site work? Or because decision-makers have their views on remote work anchored in a negative experience? Such questioning becomes pertinent when you consider that a McKinsey study posited that 29-39% of the U.S. population could spend more time working remotely without loss of productivity.

The truth is that it is wholly possible for unconscious biases to creep into professional decision-making, especially as we move into the remote and hybrid working models. In such a case, conscious action needs to be taken. To get on the right track, consider these common avenues of bias and learn how to counteract and build a diverse, inclusive, and effective workforce.

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Equitable hiring demands objective criteria

  • A study by MIT and UChicago found that when resumes containing African-American- or White-sounding names were analyzed, those with white names earned 50% more call-backs.
  • Another study, by researchers at UPF’s Department of Political and Social Sciences, found that on average, women are 30% less likely to secure a job interview than men with the same characteristics.
  • A third study, analyzing data from Paris found that applicants of North African origin and those linked to Islam faced hiring discrimination, regardless of their religion and national origin respectively.

Why does this happen?

One reason is affinity or implicit bias: This is when recruiters favor applicants who are similar to them or share experiences with them. Age, gender, race, and more often play a role here, becoming attributes that bring up unconscious bias. In a word, the similarity makes recruiters feel safer, but the trade-off is diversity and inclusion in the workforce.

Another reason could be the attribution bias: This is when you make a judgment about someone without sizing them up objectively. Here, persons from certain ethnic groups could easily be looked on as less effective. A Yale study showed that such class bias arises in hiring processes within a few seconds of the applicant speaking.

How to combat it?

The first step is being aware, and the second step is to be objective. A case in point is a study that illustrated how blind orchestra auditions were better for women musicians!

Here are some actionable ways to steer clear of sexism, racism, and ageism:

  1. Have a diverse hiring team
  2. Ask the same questions to all applicants
  3. Give a second look to those applicants that you think aren’t up to the mark
  4. Try ‘name-blind’ resumes
  5. Consider using a voice-changing software
  6. Set targets for diversity and inclusion

Remote work demands a level playing field

The year 2020 was the turning point for remote work, and yet, such may not truly be the case to the extent imagined.

  • ~70% of employees desire remote work options, says a Microsoft survey.
  • 40% of U.S. employees would take a salary cut to retain flexible work, with 47% ready to call it quits if hybrid work wasn’t an option, as per an Envoy survey.
  • 77% of those who worked remotely at least a few times a month, agreed that working off-site makes for increased productivity, as per a study by ConnectSolutions.

Yet, an SHRM research shows that:

  • 42% of supervisors confess to sometimes forgetting remote workers when assigning tasks.
  • 29-34% of remote workers feel that working remotely will dampen their career prospects.

Further, U.S. labor statistics show that:

  • Remote work is on the decline, from 35.4% in May 2020 to 13.4% in August 2021. (See introduction)

Harvard Business Review also notes that:

  • When the right to work remotely is scrapped, it’s the lower-level employees who suffer.

Why does this happen?

Earlier, the anchoring effect was considered, where an initial perception greatly determines the final outcome. The danger is that if one’s initial experience is negative, then you end up with confirmation bias, the tendency to search for reasons to support your beliefs. So, if you’ve had a bad experience with Anthony, who slacked off while working remotely, you think that Anna’s delayed submissions are due to lack of effort or because remote work is just a bad concept to start with.

In addition to this halo versus horns contrast that may be unconsciously applied to on-site versus off-site employees, there’s also the issue that statistics point out that, ‘out of sight is out of mind’. It’s natural to feel comfortable about handing over the next big project to the employee who’s at the office day in and day out rather than to someone who works remotely. But as a McKinsey report displays, if you favor fully on-site work talent is at risk. Bias, even unconscious, affects your bottom line.

How to combat it?

Many industry leaders now suggest that if you’re convinced about hybrid work, the tone at the top needs to be clear. In other words, senior management needs to work from home. It sends out a clear signal: “We’re offering flexible work options — and it’s okay to do it!

A good list of actionable steps include:

  1. Having the executive team work remotely
  2. Using data to track productivity
  3. Avoiding micromanaging remote workers
  4. Cross-checking that you’ve considered remote workers for the next assignment
  5. Planning virtual and in-person meets with remote teams
  6. Providing remote-work perks in lieu of those others get at the office

Unconscious biases can kill talent. It is most commonly seen when emotion and gut override objectivity to the detriment of remote workers and persons of a particular gender, race, age group, or religion. Now that you are conscious of the problem, it’s time to take concrete steps to see diversity and inclusion flourish in your workforce.