Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

unconscious-biasIn an effort to create more diversity-friendly workplaces, tech giants like Google and Facebook have been training employees to recognize their unconscious biases. As the term implies, these biases are below the surface, unintended, and often undesired. They’re implicit rather than explicit.

Explicit biases are evident in what people say and do, and chances are those who have such prejudices are aware of them. The manager who talks negatively about “the millennials” knows she holds the younger generation in low regard. The person who uses racist slurs doesn’t try to hide his dislike of other races. The executive who believes women shouldn’t be in leadership roles avoids recommending a female subordinate for promotion. These biases are all on the surface. Consequently, it’s relatively easy to see the connection between these individuals’ prejudices and their behavior in the workplace.

Not so with implicit or unconscious biases. Without realizing it, we may prefer to associate with younger people rather than older people, or enjoy the company of women more than men, or react more amicably to people of our own race. More concerning: we may unconsciously associate one group with positive stereotypes and another group with negative ones. Recent studies in psychology suggest that we all have implicit biases and that these biases influence our decisions.

In the workplace, these implicit biases lead to micro-aggressions —small slights or offenses that may go mostly unnoticed, but can add up to systematic discrimination or even a hostile work environment. Research shows, for example, that resumes with white-sounding names are more likely to get callbacks than resumes with black-sounding names. And it’s not because companies have official policies or practices against hiring minorities; it’s the result of unconscious bias.

Unfortunately for those affected, unconscious bias is difficult to prove. It’s one thing to demonstrate that resumes with white-sounding names get more callbacks; it’s quite another to prove that a particular hiring manager gave special treatment to white applicants in a specific instance. And even if we could demonstrate implicit biases in the workplace, penalizing people may not be the best way to address the behavior. After all, they’re not deliberately chosen or the consequence of willful neglect.

So what’s the solution? The jury is still out on that.

Some companies are trying to make their employees more aware of their unconscious biases by having them take implicit association tests. As of now, however, we don’t yet know how effective these “raise awareness” efforts will prove to be—if they have any positive effect at all.

Alternatively, some companies are using hiring applications that hide identifying information so that race, gender, and other protected classes can’t be taken into account early in the interview process. While these indirect efforts won’t remove people’s unconscious biases, they may help mitigate their effects on employment decisions, thereby reducing discrimination in the workplace.


 

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