Stripping Your Organization of Unconscious Bias

unconscious bias

In April of 2018, a Starbucks manager in Philadelphia called the police because two black men were sitting in the store, and one had asked to use the bathroom before making a purchase. The men, who had been waiting for a friend, were arrested and later released without charges.
After days of national protest and outrage, Starbucks apologized for the incident and announced it would close more than 8,000 U.S. stores for racial bias training for its nearly 175,000 employees. Starbucks’ Chief Operating Officer, Roz Brewer said the sessions would focus on unconscious bias training, a type of diversity education.

Unconscious biases include learned stereotypes that are unintentional and influence behavior. Biases can be based on skin color, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, class, age, height, weight, and disability status. The fact that they’re unconscious means people are not aware of them. If you’re thinking you don’t have any biases, think again. Newsflash: we all have them. Unconscious bias is the result of repeated messages about groups of people from our families, peers, the media, and other influences introduced into our subconscious from an early age. These prejudices deeply held in our unconscious mind can shape our behavior.

Why should organizations care about unconscious bias? Because prejudice and discrimination can negatively impact the success of an organization. Biases can influence decision-making in favor of one group to the detriment of others. Scores of studies show how unconscious bias affects workplace decisions. A Yale University study found that male and female scientists were more likely to hire men, rank them higher in competency than women, and pay them $4,000 more per year than women. Studies also indicate that resumes with surnames and forenames that are associated with under-represented groups are less likely to be interviewed than identical resumes with names related to dominant groups. So, a hiring manager could overlook a topflight candidate simply because he or she has a name associated with a group of people that the manager is biased against.

The implications of unconscious bias are that some of the most talented people feel unwelcome, invisible, and not important for the success of the organization. This results in employees who aren’t as engaged as they could be and are therefore likely to leave the organization. The question business leaders need to ask is, “Where is unconscious bias in my company, what is the impact, and how can it be remedied?”

Research shows numerous business benefits from diversity, including increased profitability, creativity, innovation, greater customer understanding, and more effective recruitment and retainment. According to McKinsey & Company’s January, 2018 report, “Delivering through Diversity,” companies in the top quarter for ethnic diversity at the executive level are 33 percent more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the bottom quarter. It’s essentially the same for gender diversity; companies in the top quarter for gender diversity are 21 percent more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the bottom quarter.

How is unconscious bias training different from diversity training, which has been around for decades? Diversity experts say one reason unconscious bias training is hot is that, unlike older programs, it does not point fingers or assign blame to anyone. Instead, it encourages everyone to explore and challenge their biases.

How does unconscious bias training work, exactly? According to Ripa Rashid, co-president at the Center for Talent and Innovation, the training must be part of a larger scale effort, not simply a one-time event or a reaction to a scandal. Unconscious bias training may first assess workers to help them see deeply ingrained biases. It may also introduce the neuroscience behind humans’ evolutionary tendency to stereotype for safety and survival, and look at the brain’s propensity to classify and take shortcuts to simplify information processing, such as “all tall people play basketball.” Effective training also helps people imagine what the world is like from another’s point of view. This is followed by a discussion about how unconscious bias plays out in the workplace. Finally, the experience should help employees generate action plans for incorporating behavioral changes into work responsibilities. For managers, this includes hiring, promotions, raises, and developmental opportunities.

Training that stops at revealing hidden biases is not enough. Although employees may become newly aware of their long-held biases, they won’t have any strategies for changing their biased behavior. Successful training must help employees identify and build skills to overcome these biases. That said, it is unrealistic to expect that unconscious biases will magically disappear after a one-time training program. Companies should schedule follow-up training and coaching to reinforce the learning. Metrics that measure behavior change should be included in any follow-up to demonstrate the commitment to addressing unconscious bias.

Our unconscious biases were formed over a lifetime, so we can’t expect changes overnight. But unconscious bias training is a step in the right direction toward uncovering our faulty, and often detrimental, assumptions and rewiring our brains for behavior change.


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