June 5th, 2019

Unconscious Bias Training

It’s estimated there are more than 150 identified types of unconscious bias. These types range from the natural tendency to surround ourselves with others who are similar to us to form assumptions and stereotypes about others.

Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

In the workplace, this has become a cause for concern as employers worry that such biases can lead to multiple problems – problems such as poor hiring decisions, a lack of innovation or discrimination.

The Role of Human Resources

As a result, human resources often is tasked with figuring out how organizations can deal with such unconscious biases and overcome them. It’s not always easy. Unconscious biases are wide-ranging: one study found blonde women’s salaries were 7 percent higher than women who were brunettes or redheads, while another found that “mature-faced” people had a career advantage over “baby-faced” people.

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To address unconscious bias in the workplace, HR needs to implement training that looks at:

  • Awareness.

    Everyone in an organization – no matter the title or position – needs to become aware that our brains are hardwired toward unconscious biases. When employees feel they can safely discuss the issue, they are much more likely to identify the biases they believe are present in their organization and how they can be addressed.

    A company-wide initiative, which can include a survey to identify specific issues, will be much more effective in reducing such biases and helping employees understand the issue. At Bonobos, for example, male employees were led through unconscious bias sessions that helped them realize their gender microaggressions in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

  • Education.

    Because there are so many different types of unconscious biases, training will need to focus on some of the most common ones and where and when they usually take place. This will make employees and leaders more aware of their actions and how their unconscious biases affect careers and business outcomes.

    Consider having employees take something like the “Project Implicit” test from a nonprofit group of international researchers who look at “thoughts and feelings that are largely outside of active awareness or control.”

  • Procedures.

    Companies often have guidelines about how to hire, promote or resolve conflicts. However, those procedures may be riddled with unconscious biases and need revamping. For example, companies need to consider a diversehiring team to evaluate candidates because they are much more likely to offer different perspectives on a candidate. Or, it may be worthwhile to remove identifying information from resumes before reviewing them to eliminate unconscious biases about a candidate’s gender, culture or religion.

    Even feedback can be fraught with unconscious biases, such as both male and female managers being tougher on women who are seen as aggressive.

  • Legal ramifications.

    Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act,employers may not discriminate against someone based on race, gender, religion or national origin of an employee. This includes bias in benefits, compensation or hours.

    The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission looks at charges of employment discrimination and can fine employers for infractions that can amount to millions of dollars.

Finally, it’s important to remember – and reinforce this message to everyone in the organization – that having hidden biases is “not the sign of a bad person,’” says Zabeen Hirji, formerly of the Royal Bank of Canada. “Most people have them. What’s bad is not trying to understand what your unconscious biases are.”

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