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3 Steps for Addressing Unconscious Bias at Work

Implicit-bias training works, but don't overdo it and make managers say 'mea culpa.'

An illustration of a man running towards a light switch.
​​Illustration by Dale Glasgow for HR Magazine.

​What you don’t know about implicit bias can hurt you—and your company. This form of prejudice, which is also known as unconscious bias, occurs when individuals make judgments at least partially influenced by gender, race or other prohibited factors without realizing they have done so, usually based on societal stereotypes or their own personal experiences.

For example, if you hire someone because you implicitly have a more favorable association with him or her, such as when you are similar in age, you may be unwittingly discriminating against those who are different from you. That can pose a very real legal risk. 

The question is what to do about it. How do you address something you don’t even know might be happening?

Some employers are using assessments such as Harvard’s Implicit Association Test so that their leaders can better understand their own biases. But there is considerable debate about the validity of these assessments, and, unfortunately, the results could be used against an organization as evidence of bias in a lawsuit. 

What can you do that is less problematic? Here are three salient recommendations to consider: 

1. Train Without Admissions

Rather than asking leaders to take an assessment, share with them data from robust studies that demonstrate: 

• The degree to which we might be unconsciously perpetuating stereotypes. 

• The existence of double standards that are wrongly applied to individuals who do not conform to our preconceived notions. 

For example, people generally do not associate women with executive leadership. Moreover, when women do act with authority, they are often called abrasive or worse, while similar behavior is lauded in their male counterparts. With a little creativity, you can come up with participatory exercises that raise awareness of such double standards without creating potential admissions of bias. 

Once we become conscious of our implicit biases, we are more likely to be able to recognize and avoid them. But how do we do that “in the moment” we’re at risk of making biased choices?

2. Promote Self-Aware Decision-Making 

Managers will not know if implicit bias is at work in any given moment. After all, this form of prejudice is, by definition, unconscious. But if they are self-aware, they should realize when they are experiencing certain feelings. 

For example, if supervisors like or dislike a job candidate right away, they should make note of that. Knee-jerk reactions serve as reminders to pause and be more deliberate and less reflexive; otherwise, the remainder of the interview might tend to confirm the initial impression. 

Instead, managers should ask themselves why they are feeling as they do. If they are not sure, they can reboot the interview so that the ultimate decision is more data-driven.

Sometimes they will get an answer once they think about it. For instance, the older applicant immediately strikes a manager as “rigid”—which he realizes on reflection is a stereotype. 

So now the question becomes “What did the older individual do to warrant that characterization?” If there are clear behaviors, focus on those and keep an open mind. Other times, however, it is just a gut feel. And my gut tells me that may result from implicit bias.

The same is true of evaluations. Supervisors can mitigate risk by asking themselves if they would give the same feedback if they were evaluating a man and not a woman or someone white rather than a person of color, for example. 

Of course, this introspection has value only when managers are willing to be honest with themselves. And they are often more inclined to take a hard look within if they understand the well-documented business benefits that come with having a diverse workforce. Make sure that this point is strongly emphasized in training.

3. Implement Systemic Safeguards 

Consider eliminating names and addresses (which are often associated with specific demographics) from resumes that are passed along to hiring managers. Studies have shown that, without this unnecessary information, women, people of color and individuals of different ancestries are less likely to be screened out. 

Another strategy is to use the same interview questions for all candidates. This decreases the chances that unconscious bias will play a role in what is being asked. For example, queries designed to assess whether the individual understands the value of diversity should not be addressed only to white men, with the unconscious—and often untrue—assumption that they do not. 

Third, ponder providing decision-makers with phrases to describe an applicant based on observable behaviors rather than labels. Decision-makers can pick which words apply and then explain the rationale for their selection. This approach not only helps focus people on behavioral descriptors but also makes it less likely that they will write down words that suggest bias.

Finally, it is helpful, particularly with higher-level positions, to have a diverse team guiding hiring decisions rather than one that is monolithic, because the former is more likely to catch implicit biases.

These are just a few suggestions for taming the unconscious-bias beast. Keep your eyes and ears—and most importantly, your mind—open for other articles, blogs and podcasts to help you understand this elusive form of bias. And then crush it.  

Jonathan A. Segal is a partner at Duane Morris in Philadelphia and New York City. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_HR_Law.


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