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Fighting Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

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Fighting Unconscious Bias in the Workplace
By Bill Olson, Senior VP, Operations at United Benefit Advisors  

Sep 4, 2019 5:39:06 PM

We are all familiar with overt biases in the workplace. From off-color jokes to discriminatory hiring practices, the experience of conscious bias is an unfortunate reality for many women and men at all levels of corporate hierarchy.

But what about unconscious bias? These are the covert thoughts we wouldn’t necessarily share with our social circles due to increasing awaren“It’s natural for most scientists to be men, women are better suited for social professions.”

“Maybe if poor people would spend less money on frivolous things they wouldn’t need food stamps.”

Everyone has hidden, unconscious biases. In fact, our brains are hardwired to act on these. Biases are located in the brain’s amygdala, which governs fear or the “fight or flight” reaction. Due to the high volume of choices we face every day, unconscious bias can be difficult to mitigate. If we had to weigh each decision against our implicit bias, the brain would undoubtedly be overloaded, triggering that “fight or flight” response.

The dark side of this hardwiring is that we often default to acting on stereotypes, whether or not we consciously believe them. There are several ways thought leaders in psychology and organizational leadership recommend addressing unconscious and implicit bias in the workplace.

1. Transparency

A felt sense of transparency is critical in the workplace for everyone’s success. Research shows that employees are more successful when they are assured that fair and thoughtful decisions are made by leadership teams, and that those decisions are well communicated. Keeping important operational secrets that may involve levels of bias have lasting and often irreparable consequences on corporate reputation when and if they are exposed. Making actionable choices to become more transparent leads to greater levels of employee happiness, longevity, and higher performance.

When fostering a culture of transparency, it is helpful to have a diverse team overseeing hiring and operational determinations rather than one that is homogenous. The former is more likely to catch implicit biases before they negatively impact decision making.

2. Proactive Training

To build upon point one, transparency needs to be met with action. Starbucks’ implicit bias training is a great example of this in action at a corporate level. When the global coffee giant faced negative press following the inappropriate arrest of two black men at one location, their response was to initiate employee unconscious bias training sessions. Its training program was revolutionary because it initiated prescriptive rules around what is otherwise a subjective and difficult area to address.

3. Understand the Larger Scope

Unconscious and implicit bias does not operate in a vacuum. Each person’s actions in the professional world have a ripple effect that creates either positive or negative momentum. On a larger scale, implicit bias moves people, policies, and legislation in very big ways. This is something to be taken seriously and to be treated as on ongoing conversation rather than a temporary fix. Company culture consultants recommend auditing the hiring process and corporate leadership decisions quarterly at a minimum. As new people join the team, each person can provide fresh insight on how to evaluate and address implicit bias for collective success. ess around political correctness. But implicit bias can have devastating, insidious consequences.

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