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Rooting Out Implicit Bias in the Workplace

Have you ever made a comment like this when describing one of your colleagues, an interview candidate, or someone you met at a meeting or a conference?

  • “He just didn’t feel like a good fit for the company.”
  • “Something about her seemed a bit ‘off’.”
  • “He’s very competent. I can tell by the way he carries himself.”
  • “She’s so well-spoken and polished. What a pleasant surprise.”

What’s the problem with these statements? 

They tend to signal implicit bias in the workplace.

What is implicit bias?

Most people don’t consciously judge others based on race, gender identity, sexual identity, or disability. We think of ourselves as the kind of people who, when faced with a difficult situation, rely on objective data and evidence to make tough choices and arrive at reasoned conclusions. 

But most of what our brain does, it does without our conscious control.

Think about it. When was the last time you thought about breathing? Or blinking? Or digesting your food? The only way you get through your day is because your brain puts all kinds of things on autopilot. If you had to consciously signal your heart to keep beating, for example, you wouldn’t have time to do much else.

The brain’s autopilot system, however, isn’t just limited to basic functions. It also plays a role in your judgment of situations and people by ‘feeding’ your conscious mind information based on things like past personal experiences or cultural messages. 

Prior to social distancing, did you think much about how far away you should stand from someone else while waiting in line? Probably not –  because your brain did a great job noticing and filing away information on appropriate physical space based on how people in your environment tended to behave without you having to consciously engage.

The problem is, some of the social or cultural messaging your brain assimilates is going to contain errors. Things like gender stereotypes or racial prejudices. This is what social scientists call ‘implicit biases’ – and we all have them.

Does having these implicit biases in the workplace mean I’m racist? Or sexist? Or homophobic?

No, not at all. 

An implicit bias arises from social programming that you receive without realizing or consciously registering it.

It does mean, however, that no matter how hard you work to ensure that your actions match your values, there’s a risk that beliefs that don’t match your values may influence your actions

Here’s an example. Only some people are told explicitly that girls shouldn’t show frustration or that boys shouldn’t cry and fewer would claim that matches their values, yet in one classic psychology study, participants consistently labeled crying infants as ‘angry’ or ‘sad’ based on gender. 

What does implicit bias in the workplace look like? 

Consider Sheila, a VP at a Fortune 500 company. Sheila is an ardent believer in equal pay for women and the leader of a company-wide initiative to improve gender balance. She tends to promote women who she describes as ‘nice’ or ‘kind’, who tend to agree with other people’s ideas. She tends to ignore women who she describes as ‘difficult’ or ‘trouble-makers’ who tend to spot problems in other people’s ideas. She doesn’t mind when men do that, though. She describes them as ‘good critical thinkers’ who ‘hold the company accountable’.

Sheila would never consider herself sexist – or indicate consciously that she believes women are inferior. Moreover, she is taking clear actions to help women in the workplace. So, what’s the problem? Her implicit bias is coming through in the workplace. Messages she has received about how women ‘ought’ to behave have influenced her judgment of the women who work for her and lead to negative outcomes for the female employees who don’t conform to these unconscious ideas. Her male employees don’t have this same problem.

What do I do to get rid of implicit bias in the workplace?

Implicit bias may be a fact of our human existence, but it doesn’t have to control your workplace. If used the right way, Artificial Intelligence can provide a much-needed dose of objectivity to your hiring process. Check out our post for how Cangrade’s cutting-edge AI technology can help you take the bias out of the hiring and promotion process.