Awareness Helps Counteract Implicit Biases

Leah Shepherd By Leah Shepherd June 19, 2023

​Knowing their own implicit biases can help HR and managers avoid making mistakes in hiring and promotion decisions.

Implicit biases are unconscious assumptions that underlie your attitudes toward certain people, groups or places. These are formed by when, where and how you were raised and educated.

Everyone has implicit biases that aren't necessarily reflections of their conscious or declared beliefs, Michael Cohen, an attorney with Duane Morris in Philadelphia, told attendees during a concurrent session at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2023 in Las Vegas.

As an example of implicit bias, Cohen referenced an incident involving Dr. Tamika Cross, a Black physician who offered to help during a flight when a passenger became unresponsive and needed medical care. A flight attendant didn't believe Cross was a physician and told her to put her hand down. Instead, the flight attendant allowed a white male who said he was a doctor to assist the sick passenger. In this case, the impact of the unconscious bias was potentially harmful to the sick passenger and could make someone less likely to step up to help in a future medical emergency.

One type of implicit bias is affinity bias, or the tendency to prefer people who are similar to us. For example, a manager might be inclined to hire a candidate who went to the same college, grew up in the same hometown or played the same sport.

"These factors typically have nothing to do with the individual's ability to perform the work. It often comes down to cultural fit. Cultural fit is lazy," Cohen said. Instead, employers should look for "cultural add," or seek to hire people who display qualities that the company doesn't already have in abundance, he said.

In hiring and promotions, having a diverse group of decision-makers can counter the downside of affinity bias, Cohen said.

Confirmation bias—the tendency to seek out and interpret new information as confirmation of your existing beliefs—happens often in social media and the workplace. For example, Cohen described a supervisor who assumes female employees want to prioritize family and home, so he doesn't give them the same work travel assignments that he gives to male employees. Thus, the male employees build experience and contacts stemming from the travel assignments, which confirms the supervisor's existing belief that the male employees deserve to be promoted.

Long-standing habits of relying on stereotypes like these can be broken, Cohen added. Our implicit biases "are absolutely redirectable, but it's going to take work," he said.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Implicit biases can stand in the way of employer's diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives. Research shows diversity enhances creativity, collaboration, productivity and profitability for companies, Cohen said. "It is beyond dispute at this point: Diversity breeds results, full stop," he said. "This is no longer cutting edge. This is not progressive thinking. This is absolutely rudimentary, fundamental information that leaders inside of our organizations must possess."

Diversity means the presence of differences within a group. Equity in the workplace refers to fair treatment in access, opportunity and advancement for all individuals. Inclusion is "creating space with a particular individual in mind, so that individual can come to your workplace being their whole, authentic self without compromise," Cohen said. Inclusion, or the lack of it, directly impacts retention and recruitment.

Cohen recommended deploying support systems and professional development opportunities to achieve equity and inclusion in the workplace.



Hire the best HR talent or advance your own career.

Are you a department of one?

Expand your toolbox with the tools and techniques needed to fix your organization’s unique needs.

Expand your toolbox with the tools and techniques needed to fix your organization’s unique needs.



HR Daily Newsletter

News, trends and analysis, as well as breaking news alerts, to help HR professionals do their jobs better each business day.