Understand Bias

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines bias as: an inclination of temperament or outlook; especially: a personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment: prejudice. 

bi-as: an inclination of temperament or outlook; especially : a personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment : prejudice

Biases can come in two forms: Personal and Organizational. Both types of biases can have a negative impact on building diverse and welcoming workplaces. 

Personal Bias

Personal bias is a person’s belief about a particular group of people, positive or negative. It can cause us to make incorrect assumptions about others based on our expectations about behaviour rather than on actual behaviour.  

Biases often happen as a result of differences between people.  For instance:

  • Body language is expressed differently in different cultures. For example, in Canada eye contact is associated with honest communication however in some Latin and Asian countries averted eyes are a sign of respect. Similarly, people from some cultures do not feel comfortable shaking hands. Some people may view this as lack of respect or ignorance.
  • In many cultures, religion is a more dominate part of life than it is in Canadian culture.  Workers from some cultures may also have different religious beliefs and follow certain customs.
  • Grooming, food preferences, cooking and attire vary from country to country and culture to culture.  For example, some people wear a headdress as part of their custom and to remain true to their beliefs may want to wear it in their workplace.

These differences need to be respected, where possible, and certainly not ignored.

How to Combat Personal Bias

The best way to start is to become aware of potential biases and make concerted efforts to understand and change them.  Remember, bias can apply to any difference (for example, individuals with a disability or who speak a different language, sex, age, religious beliefs etc.)  Here are some ideas to raise your awareness and help you combat personal bias:

6 Steps to Changing Personal Bias

  1. Reflect: Spend time reflecting on the biases that you might have. Think through how they might have been formed and if they are based on sound logic or reason.
  2. Confront: Consider why you might be holding onto a bias. Is it because of fear? A preventative measure based on a bad experience? Is it because of security? A crutch that helps you feel better about yourself?
  3. Engage: One of the best ways to eliminate bias is to prove it wrong through personal experience and engagement. Have a conversation with someone from a different culture or background. Take note of how getting to know them as an individual helped to dispel your bias.
  4. Commit: Commit to experiencing individuals. Remember that everyone is unique, not a stereotype of a group. Make your relationships about the individual, not about group membership.
  5. Maintain: Embrace each opportunity to meet new people of all kinds and appreciate the differences and unique elements that make that person who they are.
  6. Discuss: Talk about your experiences with biases and with overcoming them. Encourage others to talk about their experiences too. Use discussion to help point out lingering blind spots and how to build a bias-free workplace.

Organizational Bias

In an organization bias is expressed when certain individuals are favored over others in decision-making.  Biases can be found in the organization’s policies, processes and procedures and create barriers to people who do not fit into the dominant culture of the organization.  These barriers are usually unintentional and are often based on well-intentioned HR policies and practices. 

Discrimination in the Workplace

Organizational biases can result in two types of discrimination: Adverse Effect Discrimination and Systemic Discrimination. Both forms of discrimination are Human Rights issues. It is not acceptable from a human rights perspective for an organization to choose to remain unaware of systemic discrimination or to fail to act when a problem comes to its attention.

Adverse Effect Discrimination

Adverse effect discrimination is a result of a neutral employment rule, practice or policy that disadvantages an individual or a protected group. Some examples include:

    • A waitress at a restaurant is told she must wear the restaurant uniform. She is Muslim and wears a hijab (head scarf). Her employer says that she must dress like everyone else and remove her hijab.
    • Mike is a single father of a special needs child. His child has appointments with a specialist every Friday morning. Mike asks his boss if he can start and end work an hour later on Fridays. Mike’s boss insists that Mike work the same hours as everyone else.

Systemic Discrimination:

Systemic discrimination arises as result of the rules, policies or practices that prevent equal employment opportunities for all people: namely how the organization recruits, hires, develops and promotes their employees.  Organizations need to be aware that their “normal way of doing things” may be creating systemic discrimination.

For instance:

    • Recruitment methods have a strong influence on the pool of candidates available to the employer. Some policies and practices tend to inappropriately screen out some individuals making them seem unqualified for the job. Informal policies, practices and decision-making processes are particularly problematic as there is more room for subjective considerations and differing standards, allowing biases to come into play.
    • Certain training and development practices may exclude certain employees. Given that ability to engage in continuous learning is a significant factor for employee morale it is prudent for organizations to monitor that all employees are participating in training and development opportunities at the same rate.
    • Systems for promoting employees may also create obstacles for career progression for some individuals. As with all other decision-making, the use of informal guidelines rather than written or circulated policies are more likely create those obstacles. 

Identifying and Remedying Systemic Barriers in Your Organization.

To increase diversity in your organization systemic biases need to be identified and systems need to be put in place to ensure that they are eliminated.

A good way to determine if your organization has biases is to compare the demographics of your workforce against local demographics. Check out the demographics for your community here: www.gov.ns.ca/finance/communitycounts/default.asp

There are many tools and resources throughout this website that can help you identify systemic barriers in your organization and assist you to design new policies and practices that account for individual differences in people.  Start with the Organizational Bias Worksheet available to help you check your company for biases.


Understand Bias

Attracting Skill and Talent

Screening Resumes


Reference Checks