Workplace bias takes many forms, but the result is always the same: parts of the workforce are unfairly excluded from experiences and opportunities for which they are qualified.
The most common type of bias in the workplace is implicit, or unconscious. It operates at a level below more obvious, conscious prejudice, and affects our decisions in a much more subtle way.
Confronting this type of bias requires a careful approach, because most people are not aware of it. Recognizing that the bias exists is the key to reducing its influence.
What is Unconscious Bias?
You can think of unconscious bias as the cognitive equivalent of muscle memory, coming into play when we are faced with gaps in our own personal experience. Due to the human brain’s tendency to create shortcuts, everyone has unconscious biases. The human mind is fantastic at creating connections and grouping things together for easy access. When faced with unfamiliar or infrequent circumstances, it disproportionately pulls from widely applicable (and misinformed) associations, like stereotypes. Combined with its preference for what is familiar, we can make prejudiced decisions while still consciously believing that prejudice is wrong.
What Does Unconscious Bias Look Like?
When a group of researchers investigated on-the-job performance among cashiers in a French grocery chain, they started by measuring each manager’s unconscious bias with the Implicit Association Test (a common test for this type of bias).
They found that when minority cashiers worked under managers with a high degree of unconscious bias, they underperformed: taking more time between customers, scanning items more slowly, and almost never working late. When those same cashiers worked with unbiased managers, they were actually 9% faster and more efficient than their co-workers. There are hundreds of other examples of unconscious bias at work. Women and minorities are consistently given lower performance ratings for the same quality of work. They are underrepresented in management roles. Older workers are assumed to be technically challenged. The list goes on.
The five-step process for mitigating bias in the workplace below can help make positive progress:
Step 1: Set Expectations & Gather Feedback
Step 2: Encourage Elective Participation
Step 3: Build Bias Awareness
Step 4: Reduce Opportunities for Bias Through Structure
Step 5: Measure & Experiment
Remember that your organization is unique. Inspirational anecdotes from another firm’s success can only provide so much guidance.