Unconscious bias in the workplace

Illustration: Sreejith Ravikumar  

If ever there was a workplace issue that ought to be irradiated regularly by the shining light of an awareness programme, it is “unconscious bias”. The reason is evident from the label.

Ingersoll Rand, an engineering and innovation company, has chalked out a training programme that seeks to combat unconscious bias, especially in the area of talent management. The course helps participants introspect and find out how unconscious bias impacted team dynamics in the past and how employees can modify their behaviours.

A module on unconscious bias (UB) is the latest addition to “our Building Line Managers Capability” programme, says Rohit Kumar, director (HR), Kellogg India. The programme is getting enhanced in this manner following feedback from “Women of Kellogg”, an employee resource group within Kellogg. In addition, the company is reportedly shining the light on UB through street plays and regulars sessions with management trainers.

Last year, Wipro launched a communication campaign with a monthly leadership blog on inclusion, with a special emphasis on UB. This was followed by a series of fortnightly quizzes that encouraged employees to #BreakTheBias through scenario-based questions.

“The campaign received an enthusiastic response from employees and sparked conversations around self-awareness and acceptance. Employees also shared how they suffered due to bias-driven behaviours,” says Sunita Cherian, senior vice president — Corporate Human Resources, Wipro Limited.

In the coming weeks, Wipro will be launching a global e-learning module on UB sensitisation. The nearly 30-minute audio-visual module is set in a storytelling format, where various scenarios of unconscious bias are presented through fictional characters. The module would älso have an assessment in the end,” says Sunita.

In recent times, there has been an increased interest in machine-language learning tools, psychometric tests and gamification to weed out UB while recruiting a candidate.

AI tools

“Artificial Intelligence has largely been used in the industry where the volume of hiring is large. At Pearson, although our number of hires is low, we use AI tools to remove bias.

“In sourcing candidates, this technology is already prevalent where the tool picks up words or phrases, and we are soon extending it to the area of recruitment,” says Ritu Agast, director – human resource, Pearson India.

Checking attrition

Combating UB can bring down attrition rate in an organisation, a lesson evident from online grocery retailer Big Basket’s experience.

When the company faced a high attrition rate at its distribution centre in Pune, it decided to fight it by hiring more women.

At the store, there were certain functions, which included picking and stacking goods, that had been considered a male preserve and hiring women meant hiring managers and employees in the warehouse had to look at existing systems through new eyes. Clearly, unconscious bias would be at work when women took these posts. To prevent this, the company organised a gender sensitisation workshop, says Tanuja Tewari, HR manager, Big Basket.

Now, Big Basket’s distribution centres in Pune, Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad have women pickers, a task that men were earlier entrusted with entirely.



When the data gets pushed aside

“We all believe that we have complete control over our thoughts and decisions. Unfortunately, we don’t. Neuroscience suggests that at every given point of time our mind receives 11 million pieces of information. Consciously, we can process only 40 of those. In order to process the remaining information our mind relies on short-cuts, which include making quick and snap judgements,” says Chryslynn D’Çosta, head of diversity and inclusion at Serein.

And when snap judgements based on stereotypes are made in people-related matters, there is a huge problem.

UB is said to impact diversity and inclusion.

Although every organisation wants to believe that their people-related decisions are purely meritocratic, pure meritocracy is utopian, says Chryslynn.

“Recruitment and promotion decisions are made by people. Very rarely are these decisions based on data,” she says, citing research that the very name and address of a candidate in a job interview can trigger unconscious judgements.


Awareness through theatre

It's appraisal time, and she is away on maternity leave. She is due for promotion, but it has been denied her. What led the manager to bypass her for promotion?

This question is central to a play enacted by employees of Ernst & Young’s theatre group “Ping and Pong”. The play is addressing the issue of unconscious bias at workplaces.

This theatre group was formed a year ago at EY’s Delhi office with eight employees.

“Anybody interested in acting is part of the theatre group,” says Sandeep Kohli, Partner and Talent Leader, EY India.

This initiative at EY has now extended to 10 other offices in India.

These corporate theatre persons play out various workplace situations and issues, including hiring, employee engagement, performance evaluation for women on maternity leave, gender sensitivity and sexual harassment.

A play is usually 45 minutes long and enacted at the office lobby or cafeteria. Solutions for various situations are crowd-sourced from the audience.

How has it helped fight UB?

Kohli says it’s difficult to measure the success of this form of intervention, but it certainly helps bring many issues to the surface and enable greater awareness about them.


Ensuring fair play

At Access Healthcare, favouritism over an internal job posting and lack of fair play in promotion are among issues dealt with by an “Assessment Centre”.

Instituted a year ago, the committee has a cross-functional team of evaluators to address concerns raised by employees.

The company has more than 10,000 employees and this intervention has helped improve the internal hiring needs from 40 to 60%, says Manish Jain, chief marketing officer, Access Healthcare.

“We had many complaints regarding promotions and they have been addressed better after the committee came up,” says Jain, adding that an “Assessment Centre” is present in the 17 centres of the BPO.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Nov 23, 2020 2:20:27 PM |

Next Story