Do you have any unconscious biases?
Ok, that was a trick question. We all do. It’s important to make this clear because knowing we have unconscious biases is the first step to leveling the playing field in the workplace.
So let’s define unconscious bias.
What is unconscious bias?
An unconscious bias is an implicit stereotype. It’s an oversimplified judgment about a specific group of people.
Unconscious biases usually take the form of an if/then statement.
Unconscious bias examples
- If they came from a top university, then they must be smart.
- If they are an authority figure, then they must be right.
- If they are female, then they must be caring.
- If they are older, then they must be bad with computers.
- If they have tattoos, then they must be rebellious.
- If they look like me, then they must be competent and trustworthy.
As you can imagine, these unconscious biases affect people in the real world, some positively and some negatively.
How does unconscious bias affect the workplace?
Here are some examples of how unconscious biases affect recruiting and career development:
- Even though the world population is roughly half male (51%) and half female (49%), less than 10% of CEOs in Fortune500 companies are women.
- Women are also underrepresented in politics and earn less than men in all countries and all industries.
- There is disparity among women as well. White women in the US earn 30% more than Latinas and 21% more than black women.
- People who conform to standards of beauty earn more as well. The stats show that typically, blondes earn more than brunettes, skinny women earn more than obese women, tall men earn more than short men, and men with full heads of hair and earn more than bald men.
- Resumes with white-sounding names get more callbacks than resumes with black-sounding names.
Are blondes more competent? Does being a woman make someone less capable of leading a company? Of course not. Still, these nonsensical notions about gender, race, and ethnicity have a real and significant impact in the workplace.
How to overcome unconscious bias
So how do we fix this? The bad news is that we can’t eliminate our unconscious biases—they’re like ingrained mental habits. Like negative thoughts we can’t help but think. The good news is that, by becoming aware of them, we can begin to address them.
Bring your unconscious biases to the surface
One way to surface our unconscious biases is to ask questions. Strive, a company that offers diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) training, uses a method they call “the three Es framework” to help leaders increase their self-awareness.
The three E’s stand for expectations, evaluations, and explanations. Each E provides an opportunity for self-reflection:
- Expectations. Do you have expectations about how specific social groups will behave?
- Evaluations: In a hiring process, do you evaluate all candidates the same way?
- Explanations: Do you explain everyone’s successes and failures in the same way?
Implicit Association Bias tests, available online for free from Project Implicit, can also reveal implicit associations around age, gender, race, or skin tone. Taking these tests is totally safe; your privacy is guaranteed.
Question your biases
Addressing our biases starts with questioning them. This can be as simple as pausing before taking action. So, for example, if you’re about to reject a job candidate based on a spelling mistake on their cover letter, you can:
- Pause before deleting their application.
- Ask yourself if you would judge this person as harshly if they belonged to a different social group.
Stacey Gordon, a diversity and inclusion career strategist, also suggests using these strategies before jumping from thought to action:
- Review the pros and cons.
- Seek out contradictory data.
- Ask someone to play the devil’s advocate.
Eventually, if you want to move from being just an observer to taking a more active role in making your organization more inclusive, you’ll need to take action.
In their DE&I training sessions, Strive asks leaders to choose a challenge that they want to work on, create a plan of action, and find a partner to keep them accountable.
- Choose Your Challenge
Pick an area you want to work on. Identify which of the 3 E’s your bias is rooted in.
- Create Your Plan
Think of one action you can take to reduce your bias in this area. Consider the impact on your team and company if you continue to work on this.
- Get an accountability partner
Find someone who is also working on addressing their unconscious biases that you can touch base with regularly.
Practical ways to address hiring biases
Self-awareness is important, but we can also benefit from tools and processes to keep us accountable.
Use artificial intelligence (AI) to eliminate biases.
Create a structured hiring process.
Design interviews so that all candidates get the same set of questions. Have examples of what constitutes good answers.
Eliminate tests that favor certain types of candidates.
Whiteboard testing—a test in which a candidate for a tech job works out the solution to a code problem on a whiteboard—benefits candidates who come from a place of privilege.
Make the interview panel diverse.
The team that interviews candidates should be diverse. Try to get a mix of ages, genders, races, and ethnicities.
Document interview feedback.
Eliminate “culture fit” as a reason to reject candidates. Ask managers to be clear and specific about why they rejected each candidate.
Shortlist at least two diverse candidates.
Having two female candidates shortlisted makes it 79 times more likely that you will hire a woman. This is known as the “two in a pool” effect, which you can learn more about here.
- We all have unconscious biases. Acknowledging that unconscious biases exist and working to bring them to the surface is essential.
- One way to surface your unconscious bias is to think in terms of expectations, evaluations, and explanations. You can also take an Implicit Association Bias test online for free.
- Once you become aware of a bias, pause when this snap judgment comes to mind and find ways to question it before taking action. You can also review the pros and cons or seek out contradictory data, for example.
- Create a plan to address your bias. It’s best to start with one goal and enlist the help of an accountability partner.
- Don’t just rely on yourself. Use tools and processes to help you on your journey.
How have unconscious biases affected your career? What is your company doing to address hiring biases?
Dive deeper into the topic of diversity and inclusion in the workplace with these articles:
- Workplace Diversity: 10 Practices for Inclusive Recruitment
- 9 Steps to Master Diversity Recruiting
- 9 Ways to Retain Diverse Talent