Everyone has biases, some are conscious and some are unconscious. What makes unconscious bias such a challenge in the workplace is that, by definition, people aren’t aware of it. And regardless of whether unconscious biases are positive or negative, making snap judgments about certain people or groups that are based on stereotypes can undermine efforts to improve diversity and inclusion. While you can’t completely eliminate unconscious bias, there are strategies and steps to minimize its impact on organizations and their employees, applicants, customers and clients.
Understanding unconscious bias
Raising awareness of what unconscious bias is and where it comes from is an essential step in reducing its influence. First, it’s important for employees and managers to understand that we all have unconscious biases. It’s part of the human condition; the way our brains categorize and process tremendous amounts of information every second. Increasing awareness and understanding about unconscious bias opens the way for individuals to address their own biases, and those of others, in constructive ways.
Recognizing how unconscious bias influences decisions
Any workplace decision can be influenced by unconscious bias, including hiring, recruiting, promotions, performance reviews and discipline. Unconscious bias can also affect interactions with people outside of the organization, such as customers, vendors, partners and association members. There are many different types of biases — based on a wide range of characteristics and assumptions — and all of them can result in poor decisions or discriminatory behavior. For example, dismissing a qualified candidate because they aren’t a good ‘cultural fit’ or have a ‘foreign sounding name.’ Or having a more favorable opinion of someone because of the school they attended.
Avoiding mental shortcuts
People are more likely to be influenced by unconscious biases when they are under stress or rushed to make a decision. And considering the many distractions and interruptions we live with every day, it’s not surprising that unconscious biases can seep into our thinking. One strategy to avoid taking mental shortcuts is to slow down and pause to analyze a situation. Broadening the decision-making process is another. Documenting hiring, salary, promotions and retention data can also help organizations track progress.
Addressing unconscious bias
Developing awareness and understanding of unconscious bias is an ongoing process — and so is preventing its influence. Monitoring hiring policies and promotion criteria and including a diverse team to weigh in on key decisions are some effective ways to reduce the risk of hidden bias. Implementing a system for anonymously reporting incidents and conducting regular surveys to uncover unconscious bias are effective steps, too. In addition, facilitating regular discussions and conversations between different groups and departments and encouraging allyship, mentoring and empathy can all contribute to reducing unconscious bias and its impact on workplace culture.
The concept of unconscious bias (or implicit bias) is one of the key issues that organizations should address in their initiatives to improve diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace. As part of a multipronged strategy, engaging all employees in ongoing unconscious bias training and education can help raise awareness, promote more inclusive thinking and minimize the influence of unconscious bias on workplace culture and the decisions, policies, processes and systems that support it.