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3 Steps to Addressing Unconscious Bias in Your Organization

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Unconscious bias can skew talent and performance reviews. It affects who organizations hire, promote, and develop— and it often undermines an organization’s culture. Talent management professionals must ask the question, “To what extent are our organizational culture and business results being affected by unconscious bias? A new UNC Executive Development whitepaper, The Real Effects of Unconscious Bias in the Workplace, seeks to answer that question. 

Biases can be based on skin color, gender, age, height, weight, introversion versus extroversion, marital and parental status, physical disability, foreign accents, where someone went to college, and more.  In fact, according to the research, there are more than 150 identified unconscious biases, making the task of rooting them out and addressing them daunting.  “If you can name it, there is probably an unconscious bias for it,” write whitepaper author Horace McCormick. 

The report explains how a few known biases directly impact the workplace: 

  • Affinity bias: The tendency to warm up to people like ourselves.

  • Halo effect: The tendency to think everything about a person is good because you like that person.

  • Perception bias: The tendency to form stereotypes and assumptions about certain groups that make it impossible to make an objective judgement about members of those groups.

  • Confirmation bias: The tendency for people to seek information that confirms preexisting beliefs or assumptions.

  • Group think: This bias occurs when people try too hard to fit into a particular group by mimicking others or holding back thoughts and opinions. This causes them to lose part of their identities and causes organizations to lose out on creativity and innovation. 

Fortunately, the whitepaper details how talent management professionals can help their organizations uncover and combat unconscious bias and its effects in the workplace. 

Offer Awareness Training 

McCormick’s research found that the first step to addressing unconscious biases in the workplace is to acknowledge that everyone has them. This can be done by offering awareness training that gives “employees a safe place to learn about unconscious bias, how to recognize their own biases, and how to be mindful about combating them in everyday decision making.” Some well-known companies already doing this include Google and PricewaterhouseCoopers. 

Label the Types of Bias 

The next step to eliminating bias is to label the types of bias that are likely to happen in the workplace . For instance, organizations need to ask: How has perception bias (the tendency to form stereotypes about certain groups that make it impossible to make an objective judgement about members of those groups) affected promotions? McCormick explains that the process of labeling biases can help leaders become more aware of how their biases affect such talent issues as hiring, promotions, and compensation, and organizational culture. 

Create Structures 

To combat the effects of bias, talent management professionals can, in conjunction with other senior leaders, create processes and structures for activities like resume screening and performance reviews to help with decision making. “These structures will allow for more deliberative actions, and also, quite frankly, give peers the opportunity to point out times when unconscious biases may be seeping in,” writes McCormick. 

About the Author

Ryann K. Ellis is an editor for the Association of Talent Development (ATD). She has been covering workplace learning and performance for ATD (formerly the American Society for Training & Development) since 1995. She currently manages ATD's Community of Practice blogs, as well as ATD's government-focused magazine, The Public Manager. Contact her at rellis@td.org. 

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