All workplace investigations are centred around the expectation that any decisions and actions undertaken are free of influence from unconscious biases. The ability of an investigator to act objectively is hence a key contributing aspect towards ensuring a fair and effective workplace investigation. However, it is an inevitable aspect of human nature to be subject to unconscious biases that ultimately shape our perception of reality and impact the choices we make. This poses a significant hurdle in ensuring that the final outcome of a workplace investigation is objectively fair and unprejudiced.

In order to combat the potential influence of unconscious biases on the integrity of an investigation’s findings, employers can make use of a variety of bias reduction strategies. Whilst it may be impossible for one to gain true impartiality, making active and consistent use of these methods help to keep any biases in check and significantly mitigate their influence on the decisions made regarding a workplace investigation.

Strategies to Reduce Unconscious Bias

1. Training opportunities

Multiple studies have shown that ensuring employees undertake targeted training programs is beneficial for reducing the influence of unconscious biases on investigations. However, for this to be an effective strategy, employers must keep a few factors in mind. For one, the training programs must be implemented repeatedly over the long term and support a larger organisational strategy aimed at reducing unconscious bias. Most companies typically structure workplace training as single, informative sessions that aim to educate employees about bias.

This approach, however, operates under the presumption that educating someone about prejudice actually helps them get rid of it from their own unconscious behaviour. Challenging an individual’s subconscious beliefs also takes time and single sessions are unlikely to cover the complexity of the issue. Additionally, most companies don’t mandate training for workplace investigators, leaving it up to the individual’s sense of personal responsibility to make sure they are informed and aware. This makes it more difficult for employers to control the risk of unconscious bias affecting the decisions of investigators negatively.

The following tips will help create a program that’s effective in countering implicit biases:

  • Incorporate exercises where case studies are utilised to help apply bias concepts to real-life situations
  • Center the content around positive messaging (i.e. highlighting the benefits of behaving impartially)
  • Make sure that some training components can be tailored to specific staff groups to be more relatable
  • Give emphasis on simple, skill-building exercises that encourage prejudice mitigation
  • Include activities that allow participants to apply bias concepts to case studies in order to facilitate bias literacy
  • Don’t try to cover everything – focus on a few key topics and cover others in follow-up training
  • Workplace investigators should be required to participate due to the nature of their role

2. Limited contact

An investigator’s interactions with the complainant/accused should be carefully considered during the investigation process. Each individual will be biased about what happened and seek to influence an investigator’s opinion accordingly. Whether this is done so intentionally or not, it can lead the investigator to make subconscious assumptions about certain events or people and influence the lens through which they view the investigation. This doesn’t mean that all contact should be avoided with the parties being investigated – it may be inevitable and even beneficial in some instances. But taking an approach that minimises opportunities for conversation about an ongoing investigation will help prevent the investigator from being exposed to biased opinions and subconsciously accepting them.

In alignment with this, the amount of information that an investigator reviews before the investigative interviews versus after is an important point to consider in each case. Each piece of ‘evidence’ viewed will impact how they feel about each involved party and investigators may end up building an initial hypothesis that supports a specific theory about what occurred. Investigators are humans, and many times they are not able to control or catch unconscious bias. They may then be unable to remain impartial when interviewing individuals or reviewing later evidence, seeking instead to confirm the assumptions they’ve already made.

Unconscious Bias

This is particularly dangerous when you take into account that the information available may be lacking or unfairly favour one party. To prevent this from occurring, employers should take the time to decide how much information is necessary before the interview and what can be examined afterwards. Keep in mind that if something does come up after the interview that you feel is important, you are able to follow up with the relevant party to clarify anything important.

3. Interviewing technique

Employers should make sure that their investigational interviewing procedures are consistent to lower the possibility of unconscious bias hindering a fair process or result. This does not mean that all interviews have to be conducted in the same manner – this would only make them less effective as interviewing techniques can differ greatly in their success depending on the personality of the person being questioned.

However, having some core foundational policies and procedures that must be adhered to will ensure that opportunities for bias are limited are constrained. One example of this is the requirement for all interviews to be formally recorded in some way to mitigate the risk of memory bias. Another example is making sure employees are aware that the investigator is an impartial party who will not judge them on anything – this can also encourage the interviewee to speak more openly and honestly. 

4. Choose the investigator carefully

An investigator who has a conflict of interest with the case can greatly jeopardise the impartiality of the outcome and risk the integrity of the entire investigation. To avoid this from occurring, organisations should ensure that their policies make clear reference to the criteria under which an individual is able to take on the role of investigator and be privy to confidential information. Additionally, in some cases, it might be helpful to utilise the services of an external workplace investigator when the matter is one where unconscious bias poses too great of a risk to the objectivity of the outcome.

Some common warning signs for biased investigators include:

  • There is a clear financial advantage gained from favouring a particular party
  • The individual is a family member or friend of someone being investigated
  • Concerns or complaints have arisen about the person’s investigative conduct
  • The individual has strong, biased opinions about the issue at the investigation’s heart (e.g. workplace drug abuse)
  • The person was involved in any way, shape or form with the matter being investigated

To conclude, any employer that deals with workplace investigations must educate themselves as to the potentially detrimental impact unconscious bias can have at each stage of the investigation process and take deliberate, persistent steps to reduce that impact. Polonious can aid employers invested in mitigating the risk of unconscious bias in their workplaces by helping ensure procedural fairness and transparent decision-making in investigations.