While everyone has unconscious bias — preferences for and against something — the current spotlight on improving diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) has raised expectations for organizations to be proactive in reducing the negative impact of unconscious bias on workplace behaviors, attitudes and decisions.
What is unconscious bias?
Unconscious or implicit bias occurs when individuals make judgments about people based on stereotypes or preconceived opinions. Favorable or unfavorable, these social stereotypes and associations stem from the human brain’s tendency to process and categorize vast amounts of information. To prevent information overload, the brain takes shortcuts, which results in individuals making snap judgments and generalizations.
Whether unconscious biases are positive or negative, the key is “unconscious.” When people aren’t aware of their biases it can lead to unfair and discriminatory practices. Earlier this year, the US Department of Labor reached a settlement of over $3.8 million with a multinational technology company over allegations of systemic compensation and hiring discrimination against women and Asian employees and applicants.
Unconscious bias covers dozens of traits and preferences
Beyond gender and racial bias, there are many different types of unconscious bias. For example, name bias, beauty bias, height bias, weight bias, age bias, ability bias, conformity bias and confirmation bias — the tendency of people to look for evidence that supports their beliefs, and reject evidence that is counter to them.
People are more susceptible to unconscious biases when they are multi-tasking, under stress or rushed to make a decision. One of the strategies to reduce the influence of unconscious bias is to slow down and carefully think through decisions. It also helps to seek out different opinions and perspectives, and encourage interaction between different departments and positions within the organization.
Rethink hiring practices
People who are involved in hiring, recruiting, promotions, performance reviews and disciplinary decisions should be especially aware of biases — their own and the organization’s. As the economy picks up steam and more companies increase hiring, organizations should consider new approaches to the recruiting process to counteract bias. For example, revising job descriptions and requirements so they are gender neutral and attract more diverse candidates, focusing on work-related experience and skills rather than personality traits or attributes and tracking and measuring the number of diverse candidates against goals.
Benefits of unconscious bias training
As part of a multifaceted initiative to improve DEI, implicit bias training for all employees, including management and executives, is both a practical and strategic tool to raise awareness and understanding of how unconscious bias impacts in different situations. The idea is to motivate people to think about how unconscious bias drives their own behavior and decisions.
Other steps that individuals can take to counteract biases:
- Seek out different resources to learn about unconscious/implicit bias
- Observe how stereotypes are reinforced in the media
- Be aware of first assumptions when meeting someone new
- Spend time with people from diverse groups
- Speak up about biased behavior in the workplace
- Participate in ally and mentoring programs
As part of an organization’s DEI strategy to recruit and retain diverse talent and create a more inclusive culture, employees and managers, at every level, can benefit from unconscious bias training and other long-term initiatives to address and minimize all forms of bias.
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