Diversity and inclusion consultant Verna Myers says, “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.” Many of us are aware of the importance and benefits of increasing diversity and inclusion within our companies, at the conferences we attend, and even within our personal lives. However, even in spite of our best intentions, we may still hold unconscious, or implicit, biases against others. Without examining and taking action on these unconscious biases, we may be sabotaging our best efforts to increase diversity in the communities around us.
What Is A Bias?
A bias, simply put, is a prejudice for any group, person, or thing. Conscious biases are biases and prejudices that we are explicitly aware of having. Unconscious bias, then, are the implicit prejudices that we act on without being consciously aware of them.
In the context of social issues, unconscious biases generally describe implicit prejudices that we may have, both positive and negative, towards one or more groups of people. According to a study by Rebecca A. Dore (2014), “Unconscious biases develop at an early age: biases emerge during middle childhood and appear to develop across childhood.”
In the workplace, unconscious bias may look like: a hiring process that favors applicants from first-world countries with similar educational backgrounds, social activities that favor those who are able to stay late and may not have children or elders to care for, or conferences and panels without any diversity in their speaker line-up. Workplace bias may take many forms to include intolerant comments, exclusionary acts, and disparaging jokes.
Unconscious bias occurs when quick judgments and assessments are made about others and opinions are formed without conscious realization. These opinions are created during our formative years, where we learn social norms from family and friends as well as in institutions such as school and church. As we mature, we are faced with influencers through media sources, such as television and magazines. If awareness is not brought forth about what unconscious bias is and how to prevent it in the workplace, the impact can be detrimental to both the employees and the workplace.
Unconscious, Big Impact
The impact of unconscious bias in the workplace may cost employers in many ways. If unconscious bias prevents the recruitment of a talented and diverse workforce, the result may be a lack of innovation and creativity. Diversity is multi-dimensional and is comprised of complex similarities and differences that each person possesses. These variables include, but are not limited to, race, religion, gender identity and expression, socioeconomic status, age, ability, etc. When a group of individuals, such as employees, work on a common task towards a common goal, as in the workplace, the diverse nature of the team adds value.
McKinsey & Company, a global consulting firm committed to years of research on diversity in the workplace, does an excellent job defining diversity in both qualitative and quantitative ways. In McKinsey & Company’s “Diversity Matters” report, gender, racial, and ethnic diversity leads to increased recruitment and retention of top talent; increased employee satisfaction; and improved customer orientation. Additionally, “companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national medians.”
A further financial impact may be experienced if a qualified candidate or employee files a complaint against the company that is found to have merit. The company may be forced to pay a financial settlement, which may also impact the reputation, thus resulting in negative press and employee turnover.
Your Next Steps
- Acknowledge you may have implicit bias. Tools like Project Implicit can be a helpful and accessible way to see where your implicit biases may lie.
- Reach outside of your comfort zone and fine-tune cross-cultural agility. Collaborate with colleagues and HR representatives to create multi-directional pathways to enhance understanding and acceptance of cultural differences throughout your workspace.
- Make a commitment to diversity. Inclusion efforts work best when they’re proactive. Consider developing a diversity statement for your company’s website, sponsoring and contributing to conferences that encourage diversity, and partnering with nonprofits to collaborate on inclusion efforts both within the office and within your field.
- Bring awareness to common workplace biases. If you see something, say something. For many people, including those with privilege, it can be scary to speak up when you are a witness to workplace bias, which allows unconscious bias to profligate. Speaking up to help educate others and create a safe space is the huge step on the path of becoming an ally.
- Ask questions. To understand cross-cultural differences, learning about cross-cultural differences is part and parcel of the process. However, don’t expect others to teach you – becoming aware of your own implicit biases is an individual task.
- Own your mistakes. Mistakes are an opportunity to learn and also take accountability for your actions. Acknowledge when you’ve made an error, actively apologize, and focus on how to improve.
- Reduce opportunities for bias through structure. On a regular basis, take stock of where biases may be hidden in your workplace structure. Consider updating annual reviews, formalizing mentorship programs for employees from underrepresented groups, and offer programs to build awareness amongst colleagues.
At a glance, the term “Unconscious Bias” may be seen as another workplace distraction, another roadblock for HR and Recruiting to navigate on their path to recruitment and retention. However, as explained, there is a ripple effect which spreads the negative impact to other parts of the organization and can ultimately influence profitability.
Unconscious bias is felt by individuals who possess diverse traits or traits that are perceived incongruent with the established norm. This impact may be felt in loss of benefits (pay equity, promotional opportunities, networking events) as well in more intrinsic ways, such as feelings of discomfort and exclusion.
If we can combat the negative impact unconscious bias has in the workplace, we will improve our recruitment and retention strategies and increase employee morale, which has a direct correlation on productivity and customer service. These positive impacts will influence higher returns on the investment in our employees in the form of retention, as well as increase profitability for the company. Lastly, by taking action, we promote workplaces that are inclusive and comfortable for our diverse workforce.