We all have forms of bias, and we express bias positively and negatively.
If a wild Tasmanian devil attacks us in Australia, we might form a healthy bias against interacting with Tasmanian devils, preventing us from repeating dangerous or harmful actions. However, we could also form an unhealthy bias against anything from Australia.
Unconscious Bias refers to a bias of which we are unaware. It is automatically influenced by past experiences and environmental factors related to our cultural upbringing and other formational incidences, like a not-so-great run-in with a Tasmanian devil.
Implicit Bias is a normal, natural, and often unavoidable process directly related to learning in terms of “nurture” and instinct in terms of “nature.” In some cases, we may not be able to control our physiological response to stimuli, like an increase in heart rate when meeting an Australian after your run-in with Taz.
Implicit and unconscious biases are similar, and the terms are often used interchangeably. Implicit means: implied though not plainly expressed, whereas unconscious means: not conscious or not aware, not knowing something or not sensitive to it. According to one report by Cornish Consultancy Studies in the United Kingdom, “Implicit bias refers to the same area [as unconscious bias], but questions the level to which these biases are unconscious, especially as we are being made increasingly aware of them.”
Let’s work within the framework of this definition of implicit bias. Implicit bias is an implied association about people, places, or situations, often based on erroneous, inaccurate, or incomplete information and includes the personal histories we bring to the situation.
Implicit bias is not racism or discrimination, but it is a closely related cousin that can create or lead to systems of injustice or systematic discrimination.
Biased systems do not promote workplace diversity and inclusion.
Bias is a barrier to healthy, culturally competent workplaces. How does implicit bias manifest itself in the workplace? Here are some examples. (Please note I compiled this information from several sources, and the data will vary by industry.)
Implicit Bias in Hiring Practices
- Job applicants with perceived African-American-sounding names are 50% less likely to be employed than someone with a perceived white-sounding name.
- Women are, on average, 30 percent less likely to be called for a job interview than men with the same characteristics.
Implicit Bias in Patient Treatment
- African American patients are often associated with non-adherence to doctors’ instructions.
- White patients are provided with pain medication more often than African American patients.
Implicit Bias in Discipline Practices of Schools
- According to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund report, “Black students continue to be disproportionately disciplined as they progress through school. Overall, “Black K-12 students are 3.8 times as likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions as white students.”
- Black girls are [only] 8% of enrolled students, but 13% of students receiving one or more out-of-school suspensions.”
Implicit Bias in Workplace Performance Evaluations
- Open-ended or loosely structured evaluations open the door for bias to creep in and lead to inconsistent performance reviews between individual employees.
Other Examples of Implicit Bias in the Workplace
- Women are interrupted more frequently in business meetings.
- Asian candidates are given higher priority in teaching, math, and science positions.
- Some team members who are absent or late for meetings are treated differently based on racial, gender, generational, or other differences. One group may be welcomed and given an update on what transpired before their arrival. Others may only receive a fleeting glance or some other subtle message of admonishment with no welcome or update offered.
Overcoming Implicit Bias in the Workplace
Here are seven strategies human resources and other managers can use to overcome implicit bias in the workplace.
- Examine and broaden your definitions of success. We can use this strategy to combat what I call “pedigree” or “checkbox” bias. Often, we place people into molds by the neighborhood they grew up in, the school they graduated from, or the social organizations they belong to. If they check the right boxes or know the right people, they are part of the in-crowd. Biased interpretations of success exclude people from non-traditional backgrounds or those that may be highly qualified but just happened to be from the proverbial “other side of the tracks.” Organizations need to turn over new stones. HR departments need to look for talent outside of the usual suspects. Managers should be clear about the skills and goals they have for the workplace and look beyond the “safe bets.”
- Consider the additive contributions of team members. Reexamine your concept of teams. Diverse teams are shown to be more productive and creative. Monolithic teams can lead to problems down the line. Ask yourself, “What skills are needed to make this project or organization a success.” Define the roles and keep the essential skills in mind as you populate your team. Additive contributions minimize unnecessary skill redundancy, allowing organizations to broaden the candidate pool. Know the unique contributions of each team member, and you will build better, more dynamic, and creative teams.
- Stereotype replacement. This strategy involves replacing stereotypical responses with non-stereotypical responses. It is often challenging to change how we see people and avoid prejudgement. Stereotype replacement means we don’t assume and that we challenge norms. Don’t assume that women are not doctors or that Asians are good at math. Replace stereotypes with new understandings of roles and the capability of certain groups. Sometimes it is better to ask rather than assume. Instead of asking a woman in scrubs, “Are you a nurse?” A better question is, “So what do you do?” or “What is your position?” Don’t automatically reinforce stereotypical roles.
- Counter-stereotypic imaging. The best example of counter stereotyping is former President Barak Obama. He has, in some sense, shown that a person of color could rise to the highest office in the land. This strategy involves imagining, in detail, counter-stereotypic individuals. The theory is that telling the story of one great marginalized individual helps us to understand the broader community. The strategy of creating a counter stereotypical marginalized “messiah” can be problematic, but it does show an example of what is possible.
- Individuation. This strategy relies on preventing stereotypic inferences by obtaining specific information about group members. Knowledge is power. Getting to know people from different backgrounds can help us shift our biases. Individuation allows us to ask questions and gather better information rather than depending solely on our limited experience.
- Perspective-taking. This strategy involves taking the perspective of a member of a stereotyped group. Walk a mile in another person’s shoes. Look at the world through the eyes of another culture. This strategy may work best in tandem with other strategies because it does require a certain level of cultural awareness.
- Increasing opportunities for contact. This strategy involves seeking opportunities to encounter and engage in positive interactions with out-group members. Leave your comfort zone, travel, and immerse yourself in another culture. Be intentional in your networking. Bias comes from our past experiences, and the only way to change old expectations is to create new ones.
Ultimately as we become more aware of our identity and factors related to diversity, equity, and inclusion, we must also become aware that we are responsible for biases. Biases are not always explicit, yet we all need to recognize and acknowledge ours. We must find ways to mitigate their impact on our behavior and decisions in our interactions in the workplace.