5 forms of bias in the workplace you might not be aware of – and how HR teams can tackle them

John McNamara
Last updated on 4th May 2020
3 min read

As HR and People professionals, we’re well-versed in D&I. If not already, unfortunately many of us will likely deal with instances of discrimination during our careers.

However, what about discrimination which may not be immediately obvious?

What is unconscious bias – and what’s the problem with it?

Unconscious bias describes the deeply-ingrained ideas individuals can have about groups of people that are informed by societally-dominant norms relating to race, gender and sexuality.

However, while some biases may be unconscious, the concept can be unhelpful – something we’ve blogged about recently. ‘Unconscious bias’ can operate as a ‘get out of jail free’ card. It locates inequities as solely rooted in our minds, rather than being issues of policy, practice, and legislation.

Instead, organizations need to focus on the ways in which privilege plays out in our workplaces, as informed by society more broadly.

Bias and discrimination in workplaces is still a problem

Some forms of discrimination are more noticeable. In the United States, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act defines discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age, disability, political beliefs, and marital or familial status – and protects these forms of discrimination in law.

However, discrimination does not begin and end simply with these factors – and while there is still significant work to do on tackling bias around issues such as these, there are still many other workplace biases that are being neglected. As HR and People leaders, we must pay equal attention to these forms of bias.

Here are five lesser-known forms of bias in the workplace – unconscious or not – and what HR and People teams can do to tackle them.

1. Age

Age is one of the factors highlighted in US law, however it is also one of the hardest to notice.

In 2018, six in 10 people over 45 years old in the USA said they had reported being the victims of age discrimination at work, and 90% of those said that age discrimination was ‘common’ in their workplace. Age discrimination seems to occur most frequently in the technology sector – in fact, 40% of US workers said they fear losing their jobs due to age discrimination.

Examples of ageist discrimination you may not be aware of include advertising jobs with the opportunity to work for ‘young, dynamic teams’, passing over older employees for promotion opportunities or the chance to work on big projects, and not challenging the use of ageist language.

However, it can swing both ways – young people can suffer age discrimination too. For instance, their employers could offer them a lower wage than an older employee with the same amount of experience, they could be considered not mature enough to work on big projects or be the victim of ageist language.

Teach your employees what constitutes ageism in the workplace and empower them to report any instances of it.

2. Weight

How much someone weighs might be completely irrelevant to how well they do their job, but it can still be a career barrier. It’s legal in 49 US states to discriminate against employees based on weight.

According to a study by Cornell University, white females experienced an average 9% fall in wages after putting on weight at work. Weight-based discrimination centers on stereotypes, such as overweight employees being lazy or relying more on company healthcare, and affects everything from hiring to promotions and pay.

HR and People leaders need to be vigilant – take a zero-tolerance policy towards weight discrimination and tackle any reports of it immediately. Also, pay particularly close attention to the career progress of overweight employees – are their pay rises and promotions consistent with the effort they put in, or are they being overlooked?

3. Height

We like to look up to our senior employees – literally.

Height is often equated with power,  authority and physical ability. That’s probably why, in studies of top CEOs in the United States, it’s reported that between 50% and 90% are six foot or taller.

Furthermore, a study in the Utah law review showed that the tallest 25% of the population get a 13% boost in median income compared with the shortest 25%, and every additional inch in height is associated with a 1.8 to 2.2% increase in wages.

However, as we all know, height has no correlation with performance.

As with weight, HR and People leaders must be vigilant and act on any instances of height discrimination right away. If your employees are comfortable with you collecting height data, you can track the performance of taller vs shorter employees over time to identify patterns of discrimination.

4. Hair

If a candidate arrives at an interview with their hair dyed blue for example, it certainly won’t go unnoticed. However, unconscious bias also exists around natural hair color.

One of the most common instances is with natural red-heads. Premier League Manager Sean Dyche once accused the professional soccer world of ‘gingerism’ after he was overlooked for high-profile jobs.

It’s bad news for people with dark hair, too. Queensland University of Technology found that blondes earn up to 7%  more than those with other hair colors. A survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers demonstrated that 73% of employers factor in hair color as part of the hiring process.

5. Dress

Business attire is growing increasingly more casual. Just one in 10 British employees say they now wear suits to work.

There are many benefits to a casual dress code, including less money spent on clothes that are expensive to buy and maintain. A casual dress code can make your company appear more attractive to potential candidates, with 61% saying they would think negatively of a company that enforced a strict dress code.

However, studies show that casual attire can have a negative effect on how employees are perceived at work. In the same study quoted above, 68% of respondents said they would trust a smartly-dressed colleague over someone wearing casual attire.

What can you do tackle less-obvious biases?

As HR and People leaders, you must be responsible for helping your organization challenge biases by creating diversity and inclusion initiatives that offer every employee a level playing field.

However you can lead in other ways. For instance, your behavior and choice of words can play an important role in helping to create a culture where every employee feels empowered.

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