Unconscious bias is the result of messages from a wide array of sources introduced into our subconscious from an early age. We all harbor prejudices whether we think we do or not, and everyone is subject to their own unconscious bias. Many of these prejudices that are deeply held in our unconscious can unintentionally influence how we act toward one another in our organizations. Since many of these prejudices exist beyond the conscious level and are a result of being brought up in a society that harbors biases, we must first acknowledge that they in fact exist. These unconscious biases are not restricted to any one culture, generation, or group, and they differ significantly from open and legislated forms of prejudice and discrimination, such as usage of a derogatory name.
Multiple studies have shown that resumes with names that are related to underrepresented groups are less likely to be invited for an interview compared to identical resumes with dominant group names. So, for example, in the United States, a resume submitted with the name “Leroy” is less likely to be considered for a job than a resume submitted by “Jonathan.” In the United Kingdom, “Ali” is less welcome than “Edward.” Resumes submitted by “Jennifer” also received fewer requests than “John.”
On a global basis, opinions expressed by women in meetings are taken less seriously than the same opinions expressed by men of the same status. The implications of unconscious bias are that the best and brightest talent can be made to feel unwelcome, invisible, and not important for the success of the organization. This results in employees who are detached and likely to take their talents elsewhere.
Unfortunately, one of the paradoxes of such unconscious bias is that those who are discriminated against are also likely to discriminate against their own kind, since they have been brought up with the same prejudice as everyone else in the society.
Prejudice and discrimination are detrimental to the success of any organization, so how can we overcome the fact that we are all unconsciously biased? The good news is that, while no one is immune from their own unconscious bias, through enhanced awareness, these prejudices can be malleable.
Today, organizations throughout the world are slowly recognizing that they must provide training on unconscious bias to create a more inclusive culture. While some companies inadvertently go down the wrong path, others provide appropriatetraining that can improve the likelihood of success.
Steps organizations should consider
- Set realistic expectations. Raising expectations that unconscious bias training will eliminate all bias would be disingenuous. The goal is to be conscious of our biases and not to pretend to be blind to differences that exist.
- Provide the training in-person. This topic requires interaction, trust, and the opportunity for people to meet in a safe environment. Unconscious bias training is not appropriate for e-learning solutions or webinars, even though they might seem more cost effective.
- Be extremely judicious in selecting the right facilitator. Do not select a trainer based only because they took a course on diversity. This topic must be their passion. They might even be part of an underrepresented group. Trainers should be highly qualified and well-versed in the social psychology of attitude formation, be excellent and empathetic facilitators, and have a nonthreatening and inclusive style that avoids guilt trips.
- Provide appropriate time for the training. It has taken a lifetime to develop our biases, and they cannot be overcome in a two-hour training session. Ideally plan several short sessions or one full day at a minimum.
- Incorporate unconscious bias assessment tools. Project Implicit is an example of a successful tool that helps to uncover hidden biases on many criteria including, ethnicity, race, gender, disabilities, and age.In addition to using these tools trainers must know the pitfalls of these tests and the way people interpret the outputs. They must check that the trainees are not misinterpreting results and have support as required.
- Make the training real. Unconscious bias training is most effective when focusing on real situations, such as reviewing resumes, conducting interviews, or responding to customers. The training should help to identify those situations in which our implicit biases run contrary to our organizations’ explicit values.
- Take a different perspective. Use proven successful simulations, role plays, and other interactive exercises that help people take the perspective of others. Keep in mind that many standard tools used in diversity training are inappropriate.
- Discover the underlying message its impact. Have groups discuss the words, phrases, symbols, jokes, and other symbolic representations of their group that they find offensive and why. Discover why all of these got created and still exist.
- Provide debiasing counter-stereotyping activities. Make associations that go counter to existing stereotypes (male nurses, female scientists, elderly athletes, and the like.)
- Address the topic of in-group favoritism and how it operates in the organization. Research shows that a lack of diversity creates group-think, while diverse viewpoints result in more creativity and innovation.
More and more people realize that learning about our hidden biases is critical for successful organizations. The appropriate training must also help participants identify and build skills to overcome these biases. High outcomes are built on a foundation of clear expectations that will lead to measurable behavioral changes. Together, all training participants need to support each other in implementing these changes.
It is unrealistic to expect that our unconscious biases, which have taken years to develop, will melt away after a single training program. Follow-up training or coaching will help to reinforce the original training. Metrics that demonstrate changes in behavior, such as the percentages of underrepresented candidates selected for development programs, should be a part of any follow-up to demonstrate the commitment to take action.
If organizations want to hire and retain the best and the brightest, they need to increase employee engagement and create a culture of inclusiveness that generates innovation. Leaders and employees must learn to identify their hidden biases and make conscious decisions to try to eliminate them in the workplace.
If you have observed examples of any best practices in overcoming unconscious bias, please send to me at firstname.lastname@example.org for potential inclusion in an upcoming article.
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