How can we avoid stereotypes?

A range of different factors shape our behaviour and our ideology, including values and norms that are taught to us when we are young. These include patterns of thought consisting of biases and stereotypes which can lead us to make incorrect decisions or assessments. These, in turn, may result in discrimination against certain individuals or groups.

The term ‘unconscious bias’ refers to assumptions, stereotypes and preconceptions that can cause us to think in a certain way without realising we are doing so. As a result, we might draw conclusions automatically based on characteristics such as gender, skin colour, sexual orientation or social class rather than objective assessment. Here is a typical example: good performance by male employees is generally credited to the man in question, whilst good performance by female employees tends to be attributed to external circumstances such as a good team.

In addition to unconscious bias, ‘confirmation bias’ can also be a problem when attempting to assess performance objectively. Confirmation bias means that we only perceive information about a person that fits our existing preconceptions – such as whether we view them as flexible, provocative or independent. Any behaviours that do not fit our preconceived notions are subconsciously dismissed.

Unconscious bias and confirmation bias can both be problematic, particularly when it comes to diversity within a team. Especially in a professional context, both of these phenomena can directly influence our assessments of performance and potential – and therefore also our hiring decisions.

It is particularly important for human resources team members to be aware of their own implicit biases to facilitate an objective assessment of employees’ performance. Documenting and evaluating employees’ performance over a certain period of time according to defined criteria can help to avoid incorrect assessments based on unconscious bias. This enables comparative analyses of values and places a clear focus on an individual employee’s skills and capabilities.

Additionally, offering targeted anti-bias training schemes for employees can be beneficial. Employees will learn to become aware of their own unconscious bias and this critical, reflective thinking can lead to the next step: developing specific solutions that can help the entire team to address these biased patterns of thought.

The effects of unconscious bias and confirmation bias can also be counteracted when filling open positions at a company. Job ads should be phrased as neutrally as possible and not just target one specific group. Selection committees for the recruitment process should also be diverse to avoid groupthink and give diversity a chance to flourish in the team.