Recognizing and Reducing Unconscious Bias for a More Inclusive Office
Michael J. Kasdan
Wiggin and Dana LLP
My involvement with The Good Men Project has expanded my appreciation for equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI)—and for the importance of bringing EDI education and conversation into workplaces, including technology transfer offices as well as the firm where I am an intellectual property lawyer. One key topic is “unconscious bias,” which can damage professional relationships without our realizing that it is happening.
Simply defined, unconscious bias is a prejudice against or in favor of a person, thing or group compared with something else. All of us have biases; it is human nature to use shortcuts to categorize and make quick judgments. However, making decisions based on stereotypes can also be very harmful.
Biases can be conscious/explicit or unconscious/implicit. “Unconscious bias” refers to judgments that exist outside our awareness. Because we’re not aware of them, implicit biases can impact our thoughts and actions even more than explicit biases. In the workplace, unconscious bias can affect the decisions of hiring managers and the way you interact with co-workers and clients. A workplace in which unconscious bias runs unchecked will not be an inclusive one.
Becoming aware of the types of biases is a critical first step to addressing them in the workplace. Some well-known types of biases are affinity bias (our tendency to gravitate toward people similar to ourselves in terms of race, gender, age, educational background) ageism, attribution bias (undervaluing accomplishments and/or overvalue someone’s mistakes based on preconceived prejudice/bias), beauty/height/weight bias (judging people based on their attractiveness, height, weight), gender bias, and the halo or horns effects (the tendency to either put someone on a pedestal/think more highly of them or to have a negative impression of a person or group based on a single characteristic or experience).
Some practices that we as individuals can adopt to reduce unconscious bias include:
- Accept that we all have unconscious biases: Bias is part of being human, but we can't tackle them if we don’t acknowledge them.
- Monitor your own behavior: Question your first impressions and extreme reactions to people. Try to avoid making assumptions or relying on “gut instinct.”
- Make considered decisions: Unintentional bias is more likely when we jump to conclusions or act on the spur of the moment, so train yourself to take a step back and pause.
- Widen your social circles: Spending time with people from different cultural and academic backgrounds will build your cultural competency and reduce bias.
- Set ground rules for behavior: These can include not tolerating interruptions in meetings, making sure everyone gets an equal chance to give their opinion, and establishing how and when to call out and speak out against biased behaviors.
- Apologize if you get it wrong: Trying to change ingrained biases is difficult, and we will all invariably make mistakes. We can only make progress if we own those mistakes and learn from them.
Workplace practices to reduce unconscious bias include:
- Educate employees about stereotyping to raise awareness and mindfulness of potentially biased behaviors and perceptions,
- Let employees know that you are prioritizing bias mitigation, being transparent and having clear and objective evaluation criteria about hiring and promotion processes,
- Hold decision-makers accountable by demonstrating the importance of an unbiased work environment to an organization’s culture,
- Promote dialogue on this topic, requesting and considering employee feedback,
- Make meetings inclusive, and
- Provide bias training to educate employees and reassure those who may feel impacted by bias that the issue is being actively discussed and addressed.
Getting this right—both as individuals and as organizations—is a leadership competency that is fundamental to building successful, innovative and sustainable businesses.
Learn more on this topic from the Inclusion Evolution Podcast