Countering Unconscious Bias

Much of what we do on a daily basis is unconscious. This means we are not always conscious of why we do the things we do and what we say about others who don’t look like us. We all know biases come in many forms and can impact all of our interactions, including those occurring in the workplace. So, let us first explain what unconscious bias means. Unconscious bias refers to specific attributes and traits that we quickly assign to other people based on their social categories. Because of our prior prejudice and assumptions, we tend to make negative and snap judgments or decisions about others. And then, prejudice and discrimination arise suddenly.

Why Does It Happen?

As humans, we make irrational decisions based on what we hear from the media or people we meet on a regular basis. Then, our brain involuntarily generates either positive or negative thoughts, assumptions, choices, and decisions about who can feel safe or threat around us, who is likeable, competent, and fit for certain tasks. This is when you start showing preconceived views which are biased and prejudiced towards one gender, race, ethnicity, faith, etc. Undoubtedly, we all have an unconscious bias regardless of our gender, age, and country of origin.

Does Unconscious Bias Affect the Way We Think and See Others?

Naturally, bias is a normal human prejudice that we all have, regardless of how open-minded we consider ourselves to be. In this section, we will examine how our bias affects the way we think and see others, and how such assumptions reward or penalize, promote or demote certain groups of people.

For example, people have a propensity to possess both a positive bias towards their in-group, and a negative bias towards an out-group. Many studies divulge that we favor or prefer the sort of people by whom we are surrounded. When such stereotypes towards certain groups of people are formed, our bias will impact the way we see and interact with others.

Many studies have been written about ways our brain works and processes information in a certain way. Naturally, we gather millions of bits of information and instinctively categorize people according to their gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, age, body size, and profession, accent, social status, and job title at the unconscious level.  When we list random social categories, we are creating social labels and stereotypes. So, the information we receive from those around us may have both positive and negative views and interpretations based on our relationships with others. For example, if people around us look and sound like us, then we categorize them approachable, amicable, positive, knowledgeable, polite, and enlightened. If people around us don’t share a similar background, then we see others different, incompetent, and unsocial, and associate them with a host of other negative attributes. One example is that when hiring managers believe women do not have the same ability, then they favor male candidates over female candidates with similar education and experience. Such status differences to which people often cling may not be grounded on actual differences in person’s competence but are based on our implicit assumptions about their ability because we tend to believe certain groups of people don’t possess such competence. 

There is no doubt that the presence of unconscious bias affects recruitment, retention, and promotion of those employees deemed minority.

How Can We Counter Unconscious Bias?

When considering approaches to mitigate or counter the negative consequences of unconscious bias, one must study two components that impact the continuation of our individual and institutional biases.

Individual strategies that address unconscious bias include:

For Women / Racial Minority

  • Recognize your own bias first
  • Challenge your assumptions
  • Speak out when you see or hear gender biases
  • Encourage people around you that men and women are equally effective leaders
  • Pay attention to language or use inclusive language
  • Avoid generalizations
  • Don’t let women be talked over by men
  • Respect women’s ideas
  • Publicly acknowledge the accomplishments of women
  • Encourage women to contribute in meaningful ways  
  • Teach your own family diversity is our strength
  • Get people used to hearing from women and minorities

To address unconscious biases institutionally, employers and companies should use:

  •  Structured interviews in which all candidates regardless of their skin color, sex, language, and religion are asked the same questions
  • Hire, retain, and promote women or people from different backgrounds
  • Make sure your company is not only accepting applications from those who have a white-sounding male name
  • Make sure your hiring department and HR are not excluding particular candidates based on their assumptions of competence
  • Make sure promotions are not accorded to employees based on preference / favoritism
  • Mentor employees from the community of color,
  • Conduct bias awareness training
  • Hire consultants who will train your HRs, managers, and supervisors about cultural competency
  • Include the importance of diversity and inclusion in your employee handbook
  • Increase transparency and accountability. Hold your staff accountable if they refuse to disrespect other underrepresented employees because of their race, creed, sexual orientations, disability, age, and language
  • Be vocal in and advocate for gender parity, and inclusion
  • Don’t hesitate to nullify doubts that other people might have about their competence
  • Encourage the staff around you to use a clear and non-biased language

Even though numerous studies confirm that unconscious biases emanate from the way that our brain is structured, and we are also cognizant that biases are deeply entrenched within us all, but that does not mean we can stop them.  None of us was born with a bias. Anything people learn from through socialization, they can unlearn them.

Because of persistent diversity and inclusion initiatives in place, some companies and employers are committed to investing in formal diversity training to change attitudes and behaviors and diversify their workforce. Filsan Talent Partners consultants and certified coaches are confident that our training sessions will drop bias in hiring and firing. Employers and management teams who took our customized training said that their implicit biases dissipated considerably. Let us not our unconscious bias plague our company’s good image. Together, we can make the world a better place for all of us to live and raise a family.