February 23, 2021

Unconscious bias in the workplace was recently in the news again when a senior executive resigned after his derogatory comments about unconscious bias training went viral. The widespread reaction to the incident underscores the importance of leaders acknowledging workplace bias and championing policies, processes and practices that help reduce its negative influence on decisions, culture and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

As organizations continue to expand their DEI initiatives, the demand for unconscious or implicit bias training is on the rise. Among the questions that an effective training program should explore are:

1. Where do biases come from?

Everyone has unconscious bias — preferences for and against something.  It’s the way the human brain processes a constant flow of information and makes sense of a complex world. To prevent information overload, the brain takes shortcuts, which cause people to make snap judgments and generalizations. Some generalizations are, unfortunately, social stereotypes. Whether unconscious biases are positive or negative, the key is “unconscious.” When people aren’t aware of their biases they can’t manage them, which can lead to discriminatory practices and decisions. Unconscious bias goes beyond race and gender. It can be based on many factors, including age, abilities, religion, sexual orientation and ethnicity.

2. What kind of workplace decisions can be affected by unconscious bias?

Research shows that people are more susceptible to the influences of unconscious biases in certain situations, such as when they are rushed to make a decision or looking at a large stack of job applications. People who are involved in hiring, recruiting, promotions, performance reviews and disciplinary decisions need to be especially aware of biases — their own and the organization’s. Bias can also influence relationships with customers, vendors, suppliers and others outside of the workplace.

3. What are some common types of unconscious bias?

There are many different types of biases that can affect the workplace. Here is a sample: 

  • Gender bias – This bias is based on gender stereotypes, an outdated notion in today’s modern workplace in which employees’ gender identity includes male, female, transgender, gender neutral, etc.
  •  Name bias – This bias occurs when a judgment is made about a person based on their name and perceived background.
  • Affinity bias – Also called like-likes-like, this bias refers to the tendency to relate to and gravitate toward people who share the same race, gender, age or educational background.
  • Conformity bias – This is the tendency for people to act similarly to people around them regardless of their own personal beliefs. This phenomenon is called group think or peer pressure.
  • Ageism – This bias is based on negative age stereotypes that discriminate against applicants or employees.
  • Confirmation bias – This is the tendency to look for or favor information that confirms or supports already held beliefs or values.
  • Attribution bias – This is a phenomenon where someone tries to understand their own or another person’s behavior by attributing a reason to it, which may be dependent on the mood of the person making the judgment. For example, a hiring manager in a bad mood might assume a candidate who arrives for an interview a few minutes late has a problem with being on time, when in fact, there may be a good reason for the delay.

4. What is the connection between unconscious bias and microaggressions?

To understand how unconscious bias occurs you also need to understand microaggressions. Whether intentional or not, microaggressions are everyday slights, snubs or insults that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative messages about someone’s race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, disability or other characteristic. Like bias, if left unchecked, these demeaning hidden messages about a marginalized group of people can harm DEI efforts, employee engagement and productivity.

5. How can individuals and organizations reduce unconscious bias?

A good place to start is by slowing down — decisions are more likely to be affected by unconscious biases when they are made quickly or under stress. Some ways to avoid snap judgments and safeguard against bias are to seek out different opinions and perspectives before making talent management decisions, recruit candidates from a variety of sources, cross-train employees, create mentoring and allyship programs, set up a system for  anonymously reporting problems and measure progress.

Traliant Insight

As organizations seek to improve DEI strategies and tactics, the demand for unconscious bias training is on the rise. Training is one of the practical steps organizations can take to help employees, at every level, develop awareness and understanding of what unconscious bias is and what individuals can do to address their own biases, avoid discriminatory practices and  make better decisions that benefit the entire organization.