Unconscious Bias

Unconscious Bias about Caregiving Employees

Unconscious bias, also known as hidden bias, implicit bias, and heuristics (mental shortcuts), are influences on our thinking. In the caregiver context, they typically spring from assumptions that we make about other people, such as why they act a certain way or do certain things. Common assumptions about caregivers are that they will not be committed to their jobs, will be distracted from work by family matters, will miss deadlines, and will be absent too much. Related sex-based stereotypes are that women will be caregivers and that men will not have many (or any) family caregiving responsibilities. These assumptions form the basis of what is known as “caregiver bias.” (See our Resources page for more information about caregiver bias.) The challenge for employers is to lessen the influence of unconscious bias about caregivers so it does not lead to hostility in the workplace, stalled careers, and unnecessary attrition. Solutions should be both at the individual level (for example, supervisor training) and the organizational level (for example, HR initiatives to look for triggers and tip-offs that personnel actions are motivated by bias, policy reviews for bias, organizational communications that strengthen bias).

Work+Family Insight - Unconscious Bias

The Path from Unconscious Bias to the Courthouse

A supervisor’s personnel decisions can be driven by unconscious bias without, of course, the supervisor being aware of it. For example, a desirable assignment that will accelerate career growth might be given to a man on the assumption that he will be more committed to his job than women who have or may soon have children. As another example, a pregnant employee may be more harshly disciplined for missing work than a non-pregnant employee on the assumption that they are going to be shirking work due to pregnancy and the employer therefore has to be vigilant to prevent abuse. When an employer takes personnel actions based on bias or assumptions or sex-based stereotypes, discrimination occurs.

Work+Family Insight - Unconscious Bias Courtroom

There are many ways that caregiver discrimination shows up in the workplace.  Family caregivers can be rejected for employment, paid less, harassed, punished with difficult or undesirable assignments, denied leave, denied promotion, denied opportunities, retaliated against, and terminated unjustly. Multiple laws can be violated in the process, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Family and Medical Leave Act, the disability association clause of the Americans with Disabilities Act, state and laws that prohibit family responsibilities discrimination or familial status discrimination, and more. (See our Resources page for more details.) The worse part is that employers often are not familiar with their legal exposure – until they get hit with a large damages bill (and the employee’s lawyers’ fees, to boot).

Let’s talk about how you can work better with your caregiving employees.

Workforce 21C is now Work+Family Insight.