Blog: Can virus be unconsciously biased like humans at workplace?

Life @ Work

Can virus be unconsciously biased like humans at workplace?

Even at the workplace, we make countless decisions every day without even realizing it. Even as you sit here reading this article, you’re making decisions. Decisions about the content, the questions being asked of you. And the answers to these are influenced heavily by something researchers refer to as “Unconscious Bias.”
Can virus be unconsciously biased like humans at workplace?

It is pretty much prudent that we all are residing in extreme extraordinary times due to the dreadful impact of pandemic. Even if we wish to, we cannot ignore what is prevailing around all of us. Recently, I came across a very interesting study conducted by The Lancet which reveals that patients from Black ethnicity were twice as likely to get more infected by the novel coronavirus compared to White individuals.

Published in The Lancet, the study said ethnic minority groups are “disproportionately affected” by the novel coronavirus. It also found that people of Asian ethnicity were at a higher risk of Intensive Therapy Unit (ITU) admissions and death. The findings were based on reviews and meta-analysis of 50 research papers that had studied the 18,728,893 patients in UK and the US. As many as 42 papers were from the US and the remaining eight are from the UK.

It doesn’t matter how much we might not want to admit it but unconscious biases influence a vast majority of our decisions. This is due to the fact that our brains can consciously process 40 pieces of information per second — while we unconsciously process 11 million pieces. So, in order to keep up with all of the stimuli around us, we create mental shortcuts that ostensibly make decision-making easier. A Yale study found that — when given the choice between two similar candidates, one from each sex — college faculty preferred hiring male candidates who they perceived to be more competent and worthy of commanding higher salaries. It didn’t matter whether faculty members were male or female; all were biased against women applicants.

Even at the workplace, we make countless decisions every day without even realizing it. Even as you sit here reading this article, you’re making decisions. Decisions about the content, the questions being asked of you. And the answers to these are influenced heavily by something researchers refer to as “Unconscious Bias.”

What “Unconscious Bias” is all about?

Bias is an inclination or prejudice for or against one person or group. So, unconscious biases are unconscious feelings we have towards other people – instinctive feelings that play a strong part in influencing our judgements away from being balanced or even-handed. 

One of the most prominent areas of life where bias can play out is the workplace. For example, one of the strongest biases we have in the workplace is gender bias. Why? Well, our feelings about gender and the stereotypes we’ve all associated with gender are something we’ve developed throughout our whole lives. Things like how or where we’ve been brought up, how we’ve been socialized, our exposure to other social identities and social groups, who our friends are/were, as well as media influences, all affect how we think and feel about certain types of people. It’s just a deep seated, unconscious stereotype that’s been formed in our brains through years of different influences we often had no control over.

How does bias affect our actions?

“Most of us believe that we are ethical and unbiased. We imagine we’re good decision makers, able to objectively size up a job candidate or a venture deal and reach a fair and rational conclusion that’s in our, and our organization’s, best interests,” writes Harvard University researcher Mahzarin Banaji in the Harvard Business Review.

Models of Unconscious Bias at Workplace:

Conformity Bias

Based on a famous study that’s been around for decades, conformity bias relates to bias caused by group peer pressure. In the study, a group of people is asked to look at the picture above and say which line in Exhibit 2 matches the line in Exhibit 1. One individual is told to say what they think. The rest of the group is told to give the wrong answer.

We can see that line A of Exhibit 2 matches the line in Exhibit 1. But, when the individual who doesn’t know this is a test gives the correct answer is informed that the rest of the group has said Line B, in 75% of cases the individual decides to scrap their own opinion in favor of the groups’ opinion. Just think how this may play out in a panel talking about a candidate. If an individual feels the majority of the group are leaning towards/away from a certain choice, they will tend to go along with the group, rather than voice their own opinions.

The Halo & Horn Effect

In the 1920s, Psychologist Edward Thorndike found that people who think highly of an individual in a certain way are likely to think highly of them in several other ways. For example, if we think someone is good looking, we’ll probably also think they are intelligent and charismatic. Thorndike described this as the “halo effect.” Managers need to be wary of generalizing an employee’s performance based on one specific characteristic of their personality or appearance. They need to also understand that just because someone might have done an A-plus job on a project six months ago doesn’t necessarily mean that person is still contributing as effectively. The opposite effect is called the “horns effect.” Just because someone dropped the ball once doesn’t mean they’re incapable of improving.

Gender Bias

At the office, an assertive woman might be perceived as “aggressive” while a man with the same attributes might be described as “confident.” This is an example of the gender bias, which is more prevalent than many might want to admit. One recent study, for example, found that male scientists were likely to place more value on the opinions of their male colleagues than their female colleagues. Companies that are influenced by gender bias will miss out on great ideas and likely disengage the women that work for them.

Similarity Bias

Companies often prefer hiring candidates who’ve worked at specific companies or schools. For example, Silicon Valley tech companies are most likely to hire candidates who went to UC Berkeley. Companies that only hire candidates with particular experiences may be held back by groupthink.‍

Confirmation Bias

‍Thanks to confirmation bias, once we make a decision or opinion about something, we tend to look for information that confirms our beliefs and overlook information that goes against them. This is perhaps why the Coca-Cola Company’s disastrous New Coke product came to the market in the first place. Despite the fact that loyal Coke drinkers were perfectly happy with the product, Coca-Cola’s executives felt the need to shake things up in 1985 as a response to Pepsi’s increasing popularity. Once the decision-makers settled on releasing a new product, they ignored evidence suggesting their customers were satisfied by the original recipe.‍

Bro-Propitiating Bias

‍In a group meeting, a female member of the team makes a point that no one seems to feel too strongly about. Thirty minutes later, a male member of the team makes the same point — and everyone jumps on board with “his” idea. Companies that allow this kind of behavior to exist at the workplace will discourage women from sharing their ideas.

Process to Abate Unconscious Bias:

Unconscious bias doesn't has to be permanent. While it may be impossible to completely abolish these biases, we can take steps to reduce the chances as many of our decisions are influenced by them.

1. Cram what unconscious biases are.

The first step of limiting the impact unconscious biases have on your organization is making sure everyone is aware that they exist. “Awareness training is the first step to unraveling unconscious bias because it allows employees to recognize that everyone possesses them and to identify their own,” explains Francesca Gino, a professor at Harvard Business School.

2. Gage which biases are most likely to distress you.

Take tests—like Harvard’s Implicit Association Test—to figure out which of your individual perceptions are most likely to be governed by unconscious biases. Armed with that information, you can take proactive steps to address them on an individual basis.

3. Work out where biases are likely to affect your organization.

Biases tend to affect who gets hired, who gets promoted, who gets raises and who gets what kind of work, among other things. By knowing where bias is most likely to creep in, you can take steps to ensure that biases are considered when important decisions are made in those areas.

4. Remodel your approach to hiring.

In order to make sure that unconscious biases don’t adversely impact your hiring decisions, you may need to make some big changes. Rework on job descriptions so you’re able to draw from a wider pool of applicants. You may also want to try judging candidates “blindly,” i.e., not looking at anyone’s name or gender and instead hiring on merit alone. Additionally, consider giving candidates sample assignments to see what their work contributions might look like. Finally, standardize the interview process, as unstructured interviews tend to lead to bad hiring decisions.

5. Data driven decisions.

If your company’s upper management echelons are only staffed by respective group, unconscious biases are determining which employees are promoted. Make it a priority to diversify your management team so that more voices and backgrounds are represented.

6. Boost team members to speak up about biases.

The more people involved in a decision — and the more transparent the decision-making process is — the less likely an organization will be to be affected by unconscious biases. Create a culture that encourages open dialogue. That way, when employees realize a decision might have been influenced by unconscious biases, they won’t be afraid to speak up and set the record straight.

7. Employees must hold accountable.

Actions speak louder than words. While you shouldn’t necessarily punish someone for making a decision influenced by unconscious biases, you should keep track of whether such decisions are being made. If a manager gives 10 performance reviews, five to men and five to women, and four out of the highest five are women, it should at the very least call for a review into whether there might be a pro-female bias in the process. If the data reveals biasness, then someone may need to intervene.

8. Have diversity and inclusion goals.

From more innovation to more talented employees to higher retention rates, there are a number of reasons why companies should focus on creating diverse workplaces. Set diversity and inclusion goals to make sure that your diversity program is more than just a lip service and you actually make progress toward building a diverse team. 


All of us are affected by unconscious biases. From an organizational perspective, the sooner we realize this reality — and take proactive steps to overcome the biases that hold us back — the stronger our companies will become, and the better positioned we’ll all be to serve our stakeholders effectively. ‍


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Topics: Life @ Work, #GuestArticle

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