How to Tackle Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

Most people would say they know bias when they see it — especially when it’s overt. We may notice someone dismissing a woman’s feelings because of her gender, for example. We may notice a security guard following someone in a store, seemingly because they are not white. But can we notice bias when it’s happening in our organization?

What Is Unconscious Workplace Bias?

Bias is a powerful inclination against or for something or someone, usually based on irrational ideas. It doesn’t always rise to the level of discrimination, so hidden bias isn’t easy to spot. We think we’re offering unbiased performance reviews, but then we notice that white, straight men get higher performance reviews than everyone else. Or maybe we make a choice about who to hire next, unaware that hidden prejudices are guiding at least part of our decision.

Unconscious bias can be downright dangerous. In medical settings, gender bias can cause women to lose out on life-saving cardiac care. Racial bias in the legal system can lead to wrongful convictions and long sentences for defendants. In the workplace, unconscious bias can rob talented workers of promotions and equal pay. It can make them feel unwelcome.

Bias in the workplace is also more prevalent than we may think. Of workers surveyed, 39% reported experiencing bias at least monthly and another 83% stated that the bias they have seen or personally experienced at work was subtle.

How to Tackle Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

If you’re wondering how to tackle unconscious bias in the workplace, the good news is that it is possible. First, you will need to understand what unconscious bias is and where it comes from.

To better understand bias, scientists are now using neuroimaging to get closer to the root causes. They have found that we use separate parts of the brain for more reasoned, slower thinking and quicker judgements. When we meet someone or are in a new situation, our prefrontal cortex goes into overdrive. Without realizing it, our brains evaluate social norms, information from our senses, and our preferences. A part of our brain called the amygdala quickly evaluates the situation for any signs of danger. Before we’re aware of it, our brain is making snap judgements and attaching labels to individuals, based on what we perceive, based on our past experiences, and based on what we have been taught.

This system was meant to keep our ancestors safe, back when a new situation or person meant danger. Today, our thinking process hasn’t quite caught up to our modern lives, and it means our brains can create hidden biases in just a fraction of a second.

The painful thing is that our biases often run counter to how we think we perceive things. We think we’re impartial. We believe we’re using rational, evidence-based information to make a decision. But just under the surface is that fright-producing amygdala, placing irrational labels on people, situations, and even whole communities.

How to Identify Bias in the Workplace

So how do we identify what we can’t see? There are a few ways to uncover biases, even when they’re unconscious:

  • Gather data about inclusion. One of the most important strategies to eliminate bias in the workplace is to consult with your team. Diversio, for example, uses anonymous pulse surveys to find out whether your employees really feel included or whether they feel there is room for improvement. Leadership may feel they are being fair, welcoming, & equitable, but if workers do not experience that there may be unconscious bias at play.
  • Analyze & benchmark diversity & demographic data. You may not be able to see ethnic & national origin differences, differences in sexual orientation, or hidden disabilities. A thorough evaluation with an anonymous survey from Diversio lets you see how diverse your team really is & how your organization compares to your industry. This can give you some context. Is hidden bias leading you to be less diverse than your peers or less aware of the diversity already at your company?
  • Look at specific parts of your business. Look at performance reviews, for example. Are some groups having mistakes pointed out more than other groups? Review your leadership. Does it reflect your community or the rest of your workplace? Who are you hiring? Who is being promoted & praised in your company? Do these people reflect the diversity of your workplace or are some workers being left out?

Examples of Bias in the Workplace

Unconscious bias is different in every situation, but it can show up as:

  • Microaggressions, including off-the-cuff comments that make people feel excluded
  • Unequal pay for the same job
  • Hiring people who are significantly taller in height for leadership positions
  • Hiring biases, with studies showing that candidates with “white-sounding names,” like Greg Jones, are 50% more likely to get called in for interviews than ethnic-sounding names
  • Placing a younger person on a project involving technology, assuming that older people are less adept with tech
  • Placing employees who are a higher weight than average in less public-facing positions, even if they have excellent customer service skills
  • Environmental microaggressions, such as creating workplaces that aren’t accessible to everyone

Unconscious bias shows up on every team and in every organization. If you notice any of these signs of bias, the goal is to shine a light on the inequity and minimize the impact of prejudice. Ultimately, you want to create a welcoming and fair workplace. Yes, everyone will still have biases and preferences. We’re all human. But by working to tackle biases, you will be aware of the dangers and work together to support each other and help each other thrive.

Types of Workplace Bias

There are many types of bias in the workplace, beyond simply bias based on gender and race. Some of these include:

  • Conformity bias involves feeling peer pressure to agree with a group
  • Ageism can mean bias against older workers
  • Ableism involves prejudice against employees living with a disability.
  • A halo effect bias means that one positive quality, such as a rare skill, overshadows any negative attributes of a person
  • The horns effect bias means that one negative attribute in a person can overshadow any positive qualities in the eyes of others
  • Similarly bias involves feeling more positively towards someone who is like you
  • Beauty bias is a preference for traditionally attractive people
  • Confirmation bias involves feeling like you’re correct in your ideas, without closely questioning how you arrived at your conclusions
  • Affinity bias means you feel closer to or more positively towards someone with whom you have common interests or other connections with
  • Attribution bias involves making assumptions about what has led to a person’s successes, skills, or challenges

Strategies to Eliminate Bias in the Workplace

Now that you understand what bias is and how to spot it, it’s time to learn how to address bias in the workplace. There are several strategies to eliminate bias in the workplace and which ones you choose will depend on your workplace culture, your needs, and the types of bias you uncover.

  • Give your team a voice. Set up conversations & systems for reporting bias. When you get feedback about bias in the workplace, act to resolve it. This shows teams you’re serious about addressing issues, which can make them more open to reporting problems. Anonymous surveys can also help team members feel more comfortable with reporting prejudice & actions that make them uncomfortable.
  • Offer training. Some workers may not realize what actions or words are a problem. By offering training to everyone, you acknowledge that we all have biases & we all need to work to address them. Together, you can learn about ways to create a more inclusive vocabulary or a more comfortable workspace for all team members.
  • Think of bias like a habit. Research has shown that when individuals work to consciously become aware of their bias & to replace biased behavior with more positive actions, there is a reduction in racial bias Researchers suggest treating bias like a habit or a habitual action. Become aware of when biased behavior is more likely to happen, focus on the type of behavior you want to see instead, & try to consciously shape actions so they’re in accordance with your goals.
  • Create a diverse workforce. When you bring together people with different backgrounds, ethnicities, genders, educational backgrounds, health conditions, ages, & races, you may be helping to reduce bias. Studies have shown that when workers are in diverse groups & get to know each other as individuals, bias loosens its grip.
  • Create a Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion (DEI) strategy. A robust DEI strategy creates a diverse team that works together & an inclusive workplace. A DEI strategy may involve identifying pain points, making your workplace accessible, & working to promote all talent equitably. When your team is working together on a DEI strategy, everyone becomes part of the solution & brings their creativity to the table to address bias.
  • Slow down decisions. As we’ve seen, trying to make decisions when you’re faced with something unfamiliar can trip the amygdala’s fear response & can contribute to bias. When a decision needs to be made about hiring, firing, promotions, pay, or anything at your business, slow down to let your rational mind weigh in. Ask others on your team for their ideas. Look at data rather than relying on your emotions. Ask yourself whether your decision could be based on any assumptions you’re making.

In her book, “Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do,” researcher Jennifer Eberhardt shares a sobering thought: “At its root, bias is not an affliction that can be cured or banished. It’s a human condition that we have to understand and deal with.” As we learn how to tackle unconscious bias in the workplace, we need to accept that our humanity will prevent us from eradicating bias. At the same time, our humanity also allows us to find common ground and create a better workplace.

How Diversio Can Help

If you want to learn how to address bias in the workplace, know that you don’t have to do this alone. Drawing on years of research and many academic and industry partners, Diversio has created solutions for today’s workplaces. As the first AI-powered DEI platform, Diversio helps you create a metrics-driven DEI approach designed to cut through bias.

With Diversio, you can gather, analyze, and benchmark DEI data so you understand where you stand. Best of all, the Diversio Recommendation Engine™ takes the guesswork out of what to do next. Based on your data, the Recommendation Engine™ suggests the next steps, so you always have an AI-powered roadmap to help you improve. And with the Diversio Dashboard, you can track your progress over time. If you need training or public-facing evidence of your commitment, Diversio Training and Diversio Certification can help.

Our team will always be standing by to support you. If you’re exploring how to tackle unconscious bias in the workplace, try a demo today to see how Diversio can help your organization.

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Diversio DEI Expert
Diversio's DEI expert shares everything about diversity that you need to know.
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