Workplace bias takes many forms, but the result is always the same: parts of the workforce are unfairly excluded from experiences and opportunities for which they are qualified.
The most common type of bias in the workplace is implicit, or unconscious. It operates at a level below more obvious, conscious prejudice, and affects our decisions in a much more subtle way.
Confronting this type of bias requires a careful approach, because most people are not aware of it. Recognizing that the bias exists is the key to reducing its influence.
How Bias Impacts the Workplace
Unconscious bias brings irrelevant factors into the decision-making process. Age, ethnicity, gender, weight, and even hair color can play a role in personal assessments of candidates and employees and influence the decision to hire, fire, and promote in the workplace. While these influences may be unintentional, it does not change the fact that they are fundamentally unfair.
What is Unconscious Bias?
You can think of unconscious bias as the cognitive equivalent of muscle memory, coming into play when we are faced with gaps in our own personal experience. Due to the human brain’s tendency to create shortcuts, everyone has unconscious biases.
The human mind is fantastic at creating connections and grouping things together for easy access. When faced with unfamiliar or infrequent circumstances, it disproportionately pulls from widely applicable (and misinformed) associations, like stereotypes. Combined with its preference for what is familiar, we can make prejudiced decisions while still consciously believing that prejudice is wrong.
What Does Unconscious Bias Look Like?
When a group of researchers investigated on-the-job performance among cashiers in a French grocery chain, they started by measuring each manager’s unconscious bias with the Implicit Association Test (a common test for this type of bias).
They found that when minority cashiers worked under managers with a high degree of unconscious bias, they underperformed: taking more time between customers, scanning items more slowly, and almost never working late. When those same cashiers worked with unbiased managers, they were actually 9% faster and more efficient than their coworkers.
There are hundreds of other examples of unconscious bias at work. Women and minorities are consistently given lower performance ratings for the same quality of work. They are underrepresented in management roles. Older workers are assumed to be technically challenged. The list goes on.
Here we’ll look at a five-step process for mitigating bias in the workplace.
Step 1: Set Expectations & Gather Feedback
The first step is your internal PR campaign.
As with any far-reaching initiative, it is important that everyone knows it is a priority. Set the expectation that you are making bias mitigation a priority with a company-wide announcement. This is also where you begin the feedback-gathering process. For most companies, an anonymous survey is a good starting place.
The first announcement does not need to be complicated: just outline the “why” (e.g., to build a more inclusive work culture), the “when” (e.g., in the coming weeks), and highlight that employee feedback will be used to drive the process. Its purpose is to spark conversations and motivate employees to complete your anonymous survey. The more feedback you gather, the more data you have to build out specific programs.
Survey questions you should consider include Likert Scale (Strongly Agree - Strongly Disagree) statement-response questions and open-ended questions that let employees elaborate on their thoughts. (This is not an inclusive list; use it as a jumping-off point for your own ideation):
- I feel comfortable expressing my true opinions in the workplace.
- Generally speaking, I think my performance is fairly evaluated.
- I believe bias plays a role in our workplace.
- I would be interested in participating in bias-reduction initiatives.
- When you think of bias, what do you think of?
- What sort of bias-reduction programs would you look forward to participating in? (We’ll look at some of the best options in steps 3 and 4.)
These give you a good mix of answers to evaluate where your company currently stands.
Once you make the initial announcement, keep the conversation going. If your company uses Slack (or another chat service), create a group where interested employees can propose bias-mitigation strategies and discuss how to make the issue relevant to their coworkers. These “first movers” will be your key champions going forward.
Step 2: Encourage Elective Participation
This is where most efforts to curb bias go wrong.
Mandatory bias and diversity training almost never works. In fact, it can decrease the representation of underrepresented groups in management. In Frank Dobbin’s study of 829 midsize and large US firms, those that mandated diversity training for managers either saw no movement in the percentage of underrepresented groups in management, or experienced declines.
But in the same study, voluntary training showed the opposite effect: 9-13% increases in underrepresented groups in management across the board. What happened?
Most mandatory diversity and bias programs come with a subtle message: Complete this training, or else. Threats don’t create champions, they create silent rebels. They aggravate existing biases, and even create animosity towards the groups the training was designed to support.
Voluntary programs work because participants see themselves as “pro-diversity.” They create a virtuous cycle, because the way we think about ourselves feeds directly into the way we act. Those champions, in turn, are likely to be naturally influential and pull their more skeptical coworkers into the fold.
Step 3: Build Bias Awareness
The next step is to educate your willing volunteers.
For those unfamiliar with unconscious bias, it can be a tough concept to fully appreciate. A good starting point is Harvard’s Project Implicit. This free test works via word-picture association to measure unconscious biases toward certain groups. Give their individual results some context with some of the data we’ve presented above, and examples from this article.
The goal for bias awareness is to make the decision-making process more mindful. If employees keep their implicit biases in mind when evaluating performance, making a hire, or nominating a team member for promotion, they are less likely to lean on mental shortcuts.
Another way to build bias awareness is through “perspective-taking.” Put simply, perspective-taking involves putting yourself in another person’s shoes and focusing on how his or her experiences in a given situation will be different from your own. A study of three different diversity training programs found perspective-taking to be the most promising in terms of long-term benefits.
It may be helpful to partner with a bias training provider in these early stages. If you choose to partner with an external training company, make sure to set actual, tangible goals to make it possible to measure the success of the program.
Step 4: Reduce Opportunities for Bias Through Structure
Certain business processes are particularly prone to bias. Others help remedy it. Focusing on procedures that reduce the influence of bias help address it at a structural level.
- Rethink Self-Evaluations. Self-evaluations might seem like a way to mitigate bias in the traditional performance evaluation, but research suggests that they are not. There are clear differences (both gender and cultural) in an employee’s tendency to self-promote, and these tendencies bias managers’ evaluations. Self-evaluations should be discussed after a manager presents his or her review, not before.
- Formalize Mentorship. Another key takeaway from Dobbin’s study was the impact of formalized mentorship programs on underrepresented groups in management. Mentors naturally want their mentees to succeed, regardless of demographic. Companies with formal mentorship programs (ad-hoc mentorships tend to favor white men, since they are more likely to seek out mentors on their own) see the representation of minorities increase by 9-24%.
- Create Opportunities for Intergroup Contact. Working with individuals of different groups is one of the most tried-and-true ways of breaking down reliance on stereotypes. Unfortunately, departments and specialties are often segmented by race and gender (white men are overrepresented in technical jobs, for example). Dobbin recommends self-managed teams (where individuals across specialties come together as equals) and cross-training programs (where management trainees work in different roles for short periods).
- Widen the Net When Recruiting. Encouraging managers to interview a diverse bench of candidates for each open role creates another opportunity for intergroup contact. When Intel started requiring its managers to interview a diverse slate of candidates, they saw the percentage of new hires from underrepresented groups increase from 31.9% to 45.1%.
- Make Personnel Decisions Accountable (and Build a Task Force). Set the expectation that personnel decisions should be backed with data and explainable. Dobbin found that companies who appointed “diversity managers” that asked decision-makers to explain their reasoning saw 7-18% increases in most underrepresented groups in management. Remember the now bias-aware champions from Step 3? Armed with the data about unconscious bias, they make great task force members (voluntarily, of course).
Step 5: Measure & Experiment
As with any initiative, setting measurable goals is important. While the ultimate goal is building an inclusive workplace that facilitates fairer processes and decisions, when starting out, your goals don’t need to be related to demographics or representation in management. Setting targets for bias understanding and awareness (as measured by follow-up surveys) is a much better starting point.
Remember that your organization is unique. Inspirational anecdotes from another firm’s success can only provide so much guidance. Setting and tracking measurable goals will tell you when to stay the course, and when to change direction.