Having a strong and inclusive company culture is an essential part of business today. Unless all your employees feel equally welcome and supported, there is strong potential for widespread disengagement.
Avoiding this involves a range of measures. One of these is maintaining awareness of and mitigating the presence of bias within your organization. This can certainly be challenging, as there may be some forms of unconscious bias that you aren’t fully aware of. Among the common forms many business leaders overlook is institutional bias.
So, let’s take a closer look at this issue. What are some key institutional bias examples found throughout the business landscape? How can you prevent them from derailing your business?
What is Institutional Bias?
Institutional bias — which is also known as systemic bias — occurs when there are discriminatory behaviors and processes deeply embedded into a company. In most cases, this occurs as a result of the influence of a large group of people in leadership positions consciously or unconsciously applying their biases in their everyday practices. These actions inform the standard operational procedures that are adopted throughout the business and tend to be perpetuated. Importantly, the subsequent generations of leadership that have been nurtured surrounded by these discriminatory elements can perpetuate biases in the long-term.
A big part of the issue here is these negative cycles of biased influence. When elements of key decision making — particularly hiring, progression, demographic targets, and partnerships — are informed by bias, this places the business in a form of echo chamber. As such, it becomes difficult for the company to be meaningfully influenced by positive actions outside of these institutional biases. Indeed, it makes for a toxic atmosphere for those who don’t share or conform to these behaviors.
Key Examples of Institutional Bias
It can be helpful to understand a little more about the forms bias can take within the system of an organization. Some of these may be more familiar to you than others. It is, nevertheless, important to get a good understanding of institutional bias examples across the board so you’re in a better position to be vigilant for them.
Some of the key examples include:
Unfortunately, gender bias continues to be one of the most common examples of institutional bias in business. This is a result of a long history in the wider business community of a very cisgender male-oriented practices. There are several ways gender institutional bias can present in businesses. Leaders might lean toward hiring and promoting more cis men. A company may frequently offer non-male presenting employees lower pay. The company culture might support leadership and employee behavior that constitutes sexism or sexual harassment. When these types of issues occur on an institutional level, it creates an inhospitable atmosphere for those of marginalized gender identities.
Racial bias on an institutional level remains a prevalent issue in the business landscape. Much like gender bias, it has a significant historical presence in our society. From an organizational perspective, it is common for businesses to perpetuate a monoracial leadership structure in which these biases negatively influence how the company interacts with more diverse employees, consumers, and communities. Indeed, one of the most prevalent forms this takes is discrimination against non-white appearing names when reviewing job applications and resumes. One recent study reported that those with distinctively Black names consistently received fewer application callbacks than those with distinctively white names. Beyond applications and leadership, institutional racism can result in the perpetuation of outright prejudice or frequent microaggressions that make for a toxic workplace for those from marginalized racial groups.
In terms of institutional bias, ageism tends to be more commonly directed toward those aged 50 and upward. This usually occurs as a result of a biased systemic valuation of youth in hiring and promotions despite the diverse experience and expertise more mature candidates can offer. Businesses in which this bias is present can also find leaders reluctant to invest in providing learning opportunities to older employees or failing to include them in prominent projects. It can also be present amid a company culture in which disparaging remarks about employees’ ages are considered “acceptable” jokes, when in fact these are microaggressions that alienate their victims.
One institutional bias example frequently overlooked by leaders is that of socioeconomic status. Specifically, workers and candidates from lower income backgrounds tend to experience greater levels of systemic discrimination in the workplace. This often comes from companies enforcing unnecessarily strict requirements for candidates to have university educations. It can also arise through leaders demonstrating unconscious preferential treatment toward those from similar economic and social backgrounds to themselves. The result is perpetuation of cycles that shut out talented contributors with lower socioeconomic statuses.
Institutional conformity bias is one of the least-discussed yet particularly disruptive forms in the workplace. This occurs when employees subconsciously or consciously feel obligated to act with the majority of their peers or leaders despite their personal better judgment. Often, conformity bias is present on a deep cultural level in the workforce, in which employees are pushed to behave in a uniform way and any uniqueness squashed by leaders and colleagues alike. Unfortunately, it can mean more creative workers feel unable to contribute from their individual perspectives. This can derail the potential for innovative problem solving and lead to workers feeling undervalued or constricted.
How Can You Tackle Institutional Bias?
The first step to mitigating institutional bias is by being vigilant for its presence in the workplace. Unfortunately, as such biases often stem unconsciously from members of leadership, it’s important to gain perspectives from employees. Issuing anonymous pulse surveys on the subject can provide you with valuable insights on the extent to which your workers feel institutional bias is a part of your culture. This anonymity can be vital to help workers feel comfortable expressing opinions without fear of reprisal.
Equally vital is to ensure you immediately and visibly act to make changes or further investigations should your workers indicate that discrimination is present, rather than dismissing anything you disagree with. Remember that their responses are not malicious, but honest representations of their experiences working with your company. Indeed, it can be wise to set up open anonymous feedback channels so workers can provide their opinions on progress throughout this process of change.
Another key way to tackle institutional bias is to create more transparent and inclusive hiring and progression practices. This helps to ensure that your workforce and leadership structure becomes populated with people from a range of diverse backgrounds. Their perspectives can help to dilute and address systemic biases and break negative cycles. However, it can be worth utilizing external consultants to assess your recruitment and development processes, as any current biases in the system can affect how successful your inclusive hiring efforts are.
Institutional bias can negatively influence decision-making and other business practices and keep your company locked into negative cycles. Take the time to understand how issues like racial, age, socioeconomic, and conformity bias can disrupt your business. Importantly, maintain vigilance by gaining regular insights from your employees and maintaining inclusive hiring practices. It can be challenging, but minimizing the potential for institutional bias can help your company thrive.