Unconscious Bias and How to Expand Your Diversity and Inclusion Programs

December 5, 2019 at 5:00 AM

No one is immune to unconscious or implicit bias. This is because our brains are hard-wired to make unconscious decisions—which is precisely why unconscious bias is so difficult to identify. Unconscious bias is a major concern in human resources because it can lead to qualified and talented individuals not being considered for employment, especially in key roles.

Since unconscious biases stem from learned, deeply-ingrained stereotypes, people who make them are usually not aware that they are being prejudiced in their decision-making. This is the primary danger of unconscious bias as it serves to perpetrate stereotypical thinking, and leads to the exclusion of certain groups based on gender, ethnicity, religious affiliation, age, physical disability, and socio-economic status. Thus, unconscious bias is a precursor for discrimination and inequality; two things that are damaging to the modern workplace, and also illegal.

A very common, everyday example of unconscious bias is when people talk down to individuals who seem unkempt or poorly dressed. There’s no real intent to be condescending, and yet you may have found yourself acting in the same manner one time or another.

Identifying unconscious bias

There is no absolute, foolproof way of identifying unconscious bias. However, recognizing that it exists, that no one is exempt from displaying or being subjected to it, and that we face it daily is already a great start.

So, even if you may want to think that your criteria for selecting candidates for a job are based on facts or objective information, think again. To check yourself for unconscious bias, be sure to note the following:

  • Are you rejecting the unfamiliar? Are you making a decision to hire someone because they come from a university you know, while the others are graduates of obscure institutions?
  • Are your processes reinforcing or perpetuating bias? Simple job postings which state “with a pleasing personality” may introduce value judgements that play to unconscious bias. Other examples of phrasing that may reflect unconscious bias include “five years of continuous work experience in managerial positions,” “international travel required,” etc.
  • Do you think you know everything there is to know about a particular group? This is a bold, misleading, and dangerous assumption that leads us to either assume the best or the worst of a particular group.

Addressing unconscious bias with diversity and inclusion programs

Diversity and inclusion (D&I) programs and practices in companies have become increasingly popular in the past few years as a way to address unconscious bias in hiring practices. Moreover, organizations with a diverse and inclusive workforce have been consistently proven to be more competitive and highly profitable.

But having a diverse and inclusive workforce doesn’t simply entail adhering to a D&I quota. There are other important considerations to be made in order to have a truly diverse and inclusive workplace, such as the following:

  • Accepting that transforming a workplace or making organizational culture more open and accepting is not an immediate process. It takes time to make significant changes, and people in the workplace need to actively work on D&I; not just the leadership or upper management, but everyone in the company.
  • Management needs to prioritize D&I consciously in order to reduce the chances of both intended and unintended bias happening in the workplace.
  • Companywide bias training, and perspective activities addressing all stereotypes and situations, are a must.
  • Inclusion is an ongoing, continuous process.
  • Peer-to-peer recognition should be encouraged to strengthen connections and reinforce a sense of belonging, as well as a shared sense of purpose.
  • Honest feedback regarding the company’s efforts to build a diverse and inclusive workplace must be solicited periodically.

Eliminating unconscious bias in an organization is a long-term commitment, and requires the internalization of inclusive values and active participation in diversity and inclusion programs.