Over the past half-century, employers have made great strides in protecting employees and applicants from conscious bias on the basis of race, gender, age, and other protected characteristics. But what about
unconscious—or “implicit”—bias, which “refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner”? 1 Everyone has implicit biases that are formed from his or her experiences over time.
Implicit biases may lead decision makers to unconsciously form opinions—and make employment decisions—about applicants and employees that are based on protected characteristics (such as race, gender, and age) and that negatively affect those individuals. For example, in one study readers were asked to review the same research paper, but some of them were told it was written by an African American student and others were told it was written by a Caucasian student. Not only did the reviewers score the “African American” student’s work an average of nearly one full point lower (on a five-point scale) than the work by the “Caucasian” student, but they also offered far more negative qualitative comments on the work by the former (e.g., “average at best”) than on the work by the latter (e.g., “has potential”). 2
They may run counter to what someone consciously believes and thus make it difficult for that person to realize that they have shaped his or her decisions. Implicit biases can be unlearned, however. There are a number of actions that employers and decision makers can take to change or reduce the impact of implicit bias in the workplace.
Workplace training should include discussion about implicit bias and strategies for counteracting it. Ask employees to take implicit bias tests to help them identify their own unconscious biases and learn
how to be on guard for situations in which those biases could affect their decisions. 3
Encourage decision makers to look beyond their traditional avenues of obtaining referrals and identifying potential employees.
Ask employees to actively take steps to learn about groups of people who are different from them and to find and discuss areas of commonality (family, shared hobbies and interests, etc.) with those groups.
Encourage employees to confront their own assumptions about people; to seek out and listen to feedback from others when evaluating candidates (whether for hire or for promotion); and to consider others’ viewpoints, opinions, and experiences. Ensure that key decisions include the input of multiple individuals, preferably with varying backgrounds.
When selection decisions must be made, allow adequate time for information gathering. Avoid “gut reactions” and hasty decisions that may lead to biased decision making. Fully evaluate each candidate and be sure that decisions are made intentionally.
Strive for Alignment and Thoughtfulness
Ensure that decision makers agree on the key criteria for the decision at hand and that the criteria are as objective as possible; rather than relying on “what’s always been done” or assumptions about what’s “appropriate” or “necessary” for the role, choose the criteria thoughtfully, with a focus on skills and abilities (rather than mannerisms and style). Consider writing out the criteria ahead of time to reduce the likelihood that they’ll be changed during the decision-making process in order to justify a particular candidate selection.
Encourage employees to question generalized statements about candidates and employees (such as “she is well liked” or “he is not a good fit”) and to list both positive and negative aspects of each candidate
under consideration. Push decision makers to challenge stereotypical categorizations or descriptions about people. (For example, if a female colleague is described as “bossy” or “aggressive,” question what specific conduct led to that description and consider whether a male colleague would be described in the same way based on the same conduct.)
Discourage employees from interrupting speakers during meetings. (And when interruptions do happen, actively “interrupt the interrupters” to ensure that voices are heard.)
Be Fair in Assignments and Acknowledgments
Assign work and projects without making assumptions about employees’ abilities (e.g., that an employee with several children cannot complete a time-sensitive, labor-intensive project); also assign “office housework” (e.g., arranging meetings, taking notes during meetings) and other administrative tasks fairly. Identify and acknowledge contributions and successes by all employees.
Implicit bias can lead to many problems in the workplace, and because of its hidden nature it can be difficult to detect and eradicate. Increasing awareness is the first step toward addressing the problem. When leaders acknowledge the existence of implicit bias and and actively work to tackle it, real change can occur.
Editorial Note: This article originally appeared in ABR Employment Services magazine, ABR HR Insights. It was originally written by Christy Phanthavong, counsel at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner
LLP and Patrick DePoy, associate at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP.
1. The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. 2015. “Understanding Implicit Bias.” The Ohio State University website, kirwaninstitute. osu.edu/research/understanding-implicit-bias/.
2. Arin N. Reeves. 2014. “Written in Black and White: Exploring Confirmation Bias in Racialized Perceptions of Writing Skills.” Nextions website, nextions.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/written-in-blackand-white-yellow-paper-series.pdf.
3. One readily available version is the IAT test from Project Implicit at Harvard University