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ATD Blog

Addressing Overt Bias in the Workplace

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Human brains are designed to create mental patterns and categorizations so they can process information more quickly. These mental patterns can help us tune out the sound of cars passing, tell us when we need to eat, help us recognize specific voices in a crowd, and so on.

Yet, this ability can be problematic when the patterns we learn about people are incorrect and even harmful. In recent years, you’ve likely heard of unconscious bias, which has been a central part of the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) movement. Unconscious bias is the knee-jerk reaction we have toward others, often based on false stereotypes. It can affect all parts of an organization, from talent management to decision making to meetings. More often than not, we don’t realize unconscious bias is influencing us, and it can be difficult to spot.

Less often do we hear about the unconscious bias’s counterpart: What happens when bias is conscious?

Overt Bias

Overt—or conscious—bias occurs when a person is aware of and accepts the biases they hold. It can be meaningful to have safe spaces for those with similar backgrounds, particularly for marginalized communities. For example, many organizations have ERGs for the LGBTQ+ community, women, and people of color. These groups are important for finding support and building psychological safety for communities that often face discrimination.

In contrast, overt bias usually is based on a belief in a social hierarchy that creates a false binary, separates people who are different from ourselves, and causes us to view them as beneath or not as good as us. In other words, creating an us versus them mentality. Sometimes these false narratives come from perceptions of supposed (and incorrect) biological superiority often based on gender, race, ethnicity, ability and so on.

Overt bias typically comes from a scarcity mindset and a lack of understanding or empathy of others’ lived experiences.


Expressions of Bias in the Workplace

In the workplace, overt bias can emerge as:

  • Statements that demean or dehumanize certain communities or demographics
  • Degrading nicknames or slurs (often passed off as “jokes”)
  • Mocking or bullying, whether physical, verbal, or written
  • Use of stereotypes and “us/them” statements
  • Reluctance or refusal to engage with, hire, or promote certain types of people
  • Logos, icons, phrases, hand signals, or other symbols associated with bias (these are often called “dog whistles”)

Overt bias is considered a form of discrimination, especially when it is directed at protected status groups. Generally, it comes from higher-status groups (such as men and white people) toward lower-status groups (such as women, genderqueer individuals, religious minorities, people of color, and so on).


Causes of Overt Bias

At its core, overt bias comes from cultural beliefs that we have been taught from observed behavior and messaging in movies, books, school, families, friends, and so on throughout our lives.

It is often mediated by what’s called the “Overton Window,” or the range of beliefs deemed to be publicly acceptable at any given time. When overt bias is outside of this range, it is more likely to be penalized. For example, in the United States, the window of acceptable behavior around racial bias changed dramatically after the Civil Rights Movement, with outwardly bigoted behavior becoming less admissible. When this occurs, overt bias often shifts to become unconscious bias.

Managing Overt Bias in the Workplace

If overt bias is not mitigated in the workplace, it significantly can affect employee experience, safety, and the overall company culture. You can help manage overt bias in the workplace with:

  • Policies. Start by reviewing your antiharassment policies. Do they clearly define bias, give examples, and have strong consequences if policies are breached? Is there a safe and effective reporting system for victims and bystanders? Are there policies in place to protect individuals if HR or leadership are perpetrators? These policies can be helpful especially if they are grounded in organizational values so that they are seen as an integral part of “the way things are done here.”
  • Incident response. Respond quickly if overt bias occurs. While it’s OK to take a moment to gather your thoughts, if you are a bystander to overt bias, a lack of response can indicate your endorsement of such behavior. Having strong policies in place about what to do in such situations will help you be prepared to respond.
  • Training. Provide ongoing learning moments as an approachable and accessible way to deepen understanding around bias. Empathy exercises have been shown to be particularly helpful when they are done well. They can reduce the “us/them” mentality and broaden the minds of those who may hold overt bias because these exercises humanize the experiences of people different from ourselves. Allyship training can also be helpful; it empowers allies with the tools and language to speak up and provides strength in numbers.

The best way to minimize overt bias is to create a workplace culture where it is clear that organizational values and policies condemn such behavior. It may feel easier to focus on unconscious bias because there is an acknowledgment that it is unintentional. However uncomfortable it may be to address overt bias, it is critical to building an inclusive, safe, and equitable workplace.

About the Author

Martha Burwell is a social scientist and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) researcher, consultant and activist. She has conducted primary DEI research on topics such as first generation professionals, gender equity in startups, LGBTQ+ legal rights, and more. As a consultant, she works with companies and nonprofits to implement comprehensive DEI strategies designed to create systems-level change. As a white, queer woman with a disability, she always collaborates with people of color on her projects, as she believes lived experience is a critical component to DEI work.

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