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Putting Humanity into HR Compliance: Become Aware of Unconscious Bias

A group of business people sitting in a waiting room.

​Unconscious bias exists everywhere. This column explores its existence in the workplace and what can be done about it. 

First, a Personal Story 

My best friend in college, Rich, was black. Despite our limited funds, thanks to him, we were able to rent a very nice house in the woods at an affordable price. The house belonged to one of Rich's professors, who was on sabbatical leave. 

My girlfriend at the time had a roommate from another country. She suggested I arrange a double date. Instead of asking Rich, I asked a casual friend, who was also from a different country. 

The date took place on a Friday at our home in the woods. After dinner, the four of us sat around the fireplace enjoying each other's company. 

Rich came home from the library, saw us, gave a curt hello and disappeared into his bedroom, not to return. 

The next morning, Rich let me have it. 

"Why didn't you invite me to be the roommate's date?" he asked. "I'm not dating anyone, and supposedly you are my best friend. What gives?" 

"Well," I replied, "She's from another country, so I thought it made sense for her to meet someone from another country, as well." 

"Nonsense!" Rich said, using a saltier word than that. "They're not from the same country, just as you and your girlfriend aren't from their countries. What all four of you have in common is the color of your skin." 

Instantly, I became defensive. "That's nonsense!" I said, also using a saltier term. "Skin color has nothing to do with it!" 

Our relationship never fully recovered from this event. We remained friends but not nearly as close as before. After college, we were in touch sporadically until Rich died at a tragically young age. 

Although I denied it for many years, I've come to realize that race did play a role in my decision, although I wasn't conscious of it at the time. I regret that I never apologized to Rich before he died. 

What Is Unconscious Bias? 

Isaac E. Dixon, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, is associate vice president for HR at Portland State University. He explained that unconscious bias occurs when someone who does not know you makes assumptions about your character, intelligence or capabilities based on how you look, speak or behave. This person does so not even knowing that he or she is thinking or reacting this way. 

"As an African-American, I have experienced this type of thinking on many occasions," Dixon explained. "One occurred when I was purchasing a gift for my wife. I was the third person in line [at the cash register] and observed two people in front of me purchase their gifts using the store's credit card. When my turn came, I laid the gift on the counter along with my store credit card. 

"The clerk, who was frowning at me, stated, 'Do you have ID with you?' 

" 'Why do you need to see my ID?' I asked. 'You didn't ask either of the prior two patrons to present theirs.' 

"The clerk snapped, 'Because theft is a problem this time of the year!' 

"A woman behind me in line became so angry at how I was being treated, she stepped around me, slammed her box on the counter and exclaimed, 'Keep it!' " 

Unconscious Bias at Work 

"As a woman, I've been on both sides of it. I've held—and hold—unconscious bias and have experienced it from others," said Erin Bair, director of training and organization development at Cascade Employers Association in Salem, Ore. 

"For example, I took the implicit association test through Harvard's Project Implicit website on disability. I was ashamed when my results showed that I have a bias towards able-bodied people. I had focused much of my legal career on health care and disability rights. And here I have the very bias I was advocating against!" 

Unconscious bias in the workplace often manifests in the hiring and promotion process, according to Liani Reeves, attorney in Portland, Ore., with Bullard Law, which is a member of the Worklaw Network. "In hiring decisions, people tend to gravitate towards those who are inside our own group. We automatically feel comfortable with people who think like us, act like us and look like us. 

"That subjective comfort, often talked about in terms of 'fit' in a particular workplace culture, overrides what should be an assessment of objective qualifications. In promotions, people also tend to promote those who they think are 'leadership material.' These types of statements are often red flags for unconscious bias as employers make decisions based on assumptions about or stereotypes of traditional leaders—typically older, Caucasian men." 

The cost of unconscious bias is more than denial of employment opportunity, Bair said. "It is especially pernicious for the person on the receiving end because it can be extremely invalidating and crazy-making if it goes denied or unacknowledged. It leaves its victims wondering, 'Did they treat me that way because I'm a woman?' etc. It can be erosive to self-confidence and damage relationships." 

What Can Be Done? 

"The first step to minimize the impact of unconscious bias is to be conscious of it," Reeves said. "It's not a matter of eliminating all bias; it's a matter of interrupting bias when it sneaks into our hiring and promotion practices and other actions." 

Camille Olson, a partner at Seyfarth Shaw in Chicago, recommends a three-pronged approach: "First, each of us has the ability to develop awareness of our own historical associations, group loyalties and stereotypes in order to become more conscious of our potential bias. Put yourself in the shoes of someone who does not share your demographics, associations and group loyalties. Also, ensure that before you reach final decisions, you have considered other points of view that are expressed, as opposed to just hearing them. 

"Second, supervisors and managers have a heightened role in ensuring nonbiased decisions [are made] in the workplace and should follow structured decision-making protocol. Consider refreshing your supervisors' and managers' understanding of both your equal employment opportunity policies, as well as the legitimate business reasons to be considered. 

"Third, consider structural, companywide practices and policies that can be developed, implemented, trained and audited against in order to ensure that the workplace is free of biased decision-making. Examples of those structures include hiring checklists, decision-making documentation processes, compensation audits, performance appraisal systems, cultural audits, policy development and accessibility audits." 

Bair is a fan of "surfacing difficult topics and discussing them in safe environments." However, she cautions that just because we intend to create a safe space doesn't necessarily mean we do. 

"Well-meaning managers and HR professionals can do more harm than good without the right experience and facilitation skills. I highly recommend investing in diversity, equity and inclusion trainings, and working with a consultant to help evaluate your organization and create internal working groups and teams that are empowered to continue the work internally." 

Unconscious bias may be impossible to eliminate from an individual's thinking. However, as Dixon, Bair, Reeves and Olson relate, much can be done to ensure it does not affect the legitimate business reasons managers and supervisors have for making employment-related decisions.


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