A blog about reputation, marketing and employee morale.

Unconscious Bias Is Not Okay

Posted by Janet Smith on January 20, 2016

UNCONSCIOUS BIAS in the workplace is damaging and unfair. It affects the lives of millions, holds people back, crushes spirits, and dashes dreams. And it greatly diminishes the work experience for everyone.

I’ve been familiar with this topic, but really had my eyes opened last week when I attended a two-hour presentation on unconscious bias in the workplace, sponsored by the Kansas City Diversity and Inclusion Consortium and the Kansas City Business Journal. It was time incredibly well spent.

The outstanding keynote speaker was Sue Townsen, National Managing Partner, HR Diversity and Corporate Responsibility for KPMG US. The company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, and record of success in this area, are very impressive.  Sue mentioned that one of the company’s current initiatives is focused on retaining those employees who are in the millennial age group.

Sue’s comments made me realize that regardless of how unbiased and fair we believe ourselves to be, we each have biases that impact our thinking, decisions and opinions — whether we are aware of it or not. These biases develop during our formative years (we are born bias-free!) in areas where bias is possible such as race, ethnicity, color, religion, age, abilities or disabilities, gender, gender identity, sexual preference, weight, speaking voice, accent, appearance including piercings, tattoos, personal style, clothing, and hair (the style, the color, the lack of). And this isn’t an exhaustive list.

Unconscious bias may be natural and unpreventable…but that doesn’t mean it is okay, that it’s acceptable, that we can’t learn to overcome it, or that we shouldn’t be concerned about it. It is critically important that everyone in leadership, management, and HR roles take action to tackle unconscious bias, because it has a huge negative impact on the lives and futures of millions. And because it makes workplaces less inclusive, less interesting, less appealing, less dynamic, less talented, and less successful.

The opening keynote was followed by fascinating panel discussion. Sue served on the panel, along with Deth Im, Director of Training and Development for PICO National Network; Dr. Susan Wilson, Vice Chancellor, Division of Diversity and Inclusion for the University of Missouri-Kansas City; and Dan Nilsen, Founder and Chairman of Bishop-McCann.

Here are some key points that resonated with me, and are important for all leaders and HR professionals:

  1. Be aware of anchoring bias — relying too heavily on one trait or piece of information. For example in the hiring process, an interviewer could have an anchoring bias in favor of candidates who graduated from her alma mater.
  2. Also be aware of affinity bias which occurs when we ignore or overlook the negative traits of candidates we like and who seem to be like us.
  3. To have even a slim chance of being effective, diversity training must be a positive discussion, not a shaming experience for the participants. (Editorial comment: corporations started implementing diversity programs at least several decades ago, yet only 1 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are black, and only 4 percent are women, according to 2015 data from Catalyst and CNN Money. Traditional methods of diversity training are typically not effective.)
  4. A collaborative approach to dealing with unconscious bias is best. Sure, someone who is qualified should lead the charge. But there must be an across-the-board desire by all leaders to address these issues and work together to do so. Therefore…
  5. Diversity and inclusion programs must be tied to an organization’s mission, and…
  6. Discussions among co-workers about diversity and inclusion must get real if progress is going to be made. That means people have to get outside their comfort zone and talk honestly. (This type of real conversation about bias, unconscious or not, doesn’t happen enough under any circumstances, and is extremely rare in the workplace. And that’s one of the reasons why diversity training hasn’t made a difference.)
  7. To minimize unconscious bias in the hiring process, use standardized questions, determine hiring criteria in advance, and train people who make hiring decisions about unconscious bias. And remember that throughout the hiring process, effectiveness is more important than efficiency.  That means take your time, think things through, and search for evidence that unconscious bias may be at play.
  8. Take advantage of outstanding open-source training about managing unconscious bias that’s available online. Facebook has a video series that covers their unconscious bias training.  Google offers quite a bit of information as well. If you seek, you will find some really good stuff.
  9. When there is a vacuum in the information that we have about someone, something, or about a situation, our brains automatically fill in the void with what we know. This is another reason why good training and honest conversations about unconscious bias are so important.
  10. We all should learn about, and consider taking, the Harvard Implicit Association Tests (IAT) that “measure attitudes and beliefs that people may be unwilling or unable to report,” as described on their website. “The IAT may be especially interesting if it shows that you have an implicit attitude that you did not know about. For example, you may believe that women and men should be equally associated with science, but your automatic associations could show that you (like many others) associate men with science more than you associate women with science.” I took one of the IATs this morning, and the results were very interesting. I’ll be taking some of the others.

Unconscious bias exists in all of us. But that doesn’t let us off the hook. And once we know and understand this phenomena, we have a responsibility to identify our own biases, appropriately question others about theirs, and find opportunities to raise awareness of this topic. If we are in the position to do so, we must make it a priority to call attention to unconscious bias in our workplaces, create opportunities for honest conversation, and provide excellent training programs with proven track records.

One boss or hiring manager can change the course of someone’s life by deciding to hire (or not), promote (or not), or develop (or not). Such decisions must be based on balanced, rational decision-making…not as a result of unconscious bias that prevents many job candidates or employees from ever having a chance.












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