By Howard J. Ross
Where diversity is concerned, unconscious bias can create irrational circumstances where people make choices that seem to be driven by overt prejudice, even when they are not. Of course, there are still some cases where people are consciously hateful, hurtful, and biased. These people still need to be watched out for and addressed. But it is important to recognize that the concept of unconscious bias does not only apply to “them.” It applies to all of us. Each one of us has groups with which we consciously feel uncomfortable, even as we castigate others for feeling uncomfortable with our own groups.
There are a number of strategies that will help us create workplace cultures in which employees can actively uncover and skillfully deal with perceptions, patterns, and unconscious biases that have been hidden:
- Recognize that as human beings, our brains make mistakes without us even knowing it. The science of “unconscious bias” applies to how we perceive other people. We’re all biased and becoming aware of our own biases will help us mitigate them in the workplace.
- Re-frame the conversation to focus on fair treatment and respect, and away from discrimination and “protected classes”. Review every aspect of the employment life cycle for hidden bias—screening resumes, interviews, on-boarding assignment process, mentoring programs, performance evaluation, identifying high performers, promotion, and termination.
- Ensure that anonymous employee surveys are conducted company-wide to first understand what specific issues of hidden bias and unfairness might exist at your workplace. Each department or location may have different issues.
- Conduct anonymous surveys with former employees to better understand the issues they faced, what steps could be taken for them to consider coming back, whether they encourage or discourage prospective employees from applying for positions at your company and whether they encourage or discourage prospective customers/clients from using your company’s products or services.
- Offer customized training based upon survey results of current and former employees that includes examples of hidden bias, forms of unfairness that are hurtful and demotivating, and positive methods to discuss these issues.
- Offer an anonymous, third-party complaint channel such as an ombudsperson; since most of the behaviors that employees perceive as unfair are not covered by current laws—e.g. bullying, very subtle bias—existing formal complaint channels simply don’t work.
- Initiate a resume study within your industry, company and/or department to see whether resumes with roughly equivalent education and experience are weighted equally, when the names are obviously gender or race or culturally distinct.
- Launch a resume study within your company and/or department to reassign points based on earned accomplishments vs. accidents of birth—e.g. take points off for someone who had an unpaid internship, add points for someone who put him/herself through college.
- Support projects that encourage positive images of persons of color, GLBT, and women. Distribute stories and pictures widely that portray stereotype-busting images—posters, newsletters, annual reports, speaker series, podcasts. Many studies show that the mere positive image of specific groups of people can combat our hidden bias.
- Identify, support, and collaborate with effective programs that increase diversity in the pipeline. Reward employees who volunteer with these groups, create internships and other bridges, and celebrate the stories of those who successfully overcome obstacles.
How do you deal with unconscious bias?
Successfully overcoming unconscious bias is one of many topics that we will address at Linkage’s Institute for Leading Diversity & Inclusion™ taking place May 6-8 in Atlanta, GA.
About Howard Ross
Linkage partner Howard J. Ross is the founder and Chief Learning Officer of Cook Ross Inc. He is an advisor to major global educational, corporate, philanthropic, and governmental organizations, and the architect of award-winning diversity and leadership education programs.