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Understanding Subtle and Unconscious Bias

Subtle and Unconscious Bias at Work
Cultural change requires a focus on specific behaviors. However, ferreting out harmful behaviors isn’t always easy. Although blatant and egregious examples of racism still exist, many of the behaviors that damage diversity and inclusion efforts in today’s companies are more subtle.
In many cases, workplace discrimination happens completely unconsciously: Even the people who consider themselves to be very fair and welcoming to all groups can be responsible for bias.
However, benign intentions don’t excuse unwelcoming behavior at work. Give your employees the ability to recognize these behaviors for what they are, and then you can start getting rid of them.

Identifying Unconscious Bias

Compared to conscious or overt bias (such as openly admitting you don’t want to work with a certain group of people), unconscious bias happens without the offender realizing it at all.
Unconscious bias starts as as an impression or gut feeling, which then influences your perception, often in ways that are difficult to consciously identify. These hidden preferences and prejudices go on to affect most of your decisions.
Gut-level, spontaneous judgements based on personal experiences have helped humans adapt and survive throughout history. The tendency to take these mental shortcuts is hard-wired into our brains.
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Here are just a few examples of how employees’ unconscious bias could be affecting your work culture:

  • When hiring, people tend to give preference to candidates that they have something in common with (a sport, alma mater, shared connection, or mutual friend), which can exclude people with different backgrounds.
  • Groups of colleagues that share similar interests, cultures, or attributes develop relationships that give them subtle advantages at work and also make “outsiders” feel uncomfortable.
  • Managers make assumptions about which type of person is best equipped to handle a certain task based on stereotypes instead of real data.

Fighting Unconscious Bias:

One of the best ways to fight unconscious bias is to use procedures for areas where bias does the most damage, such as hiring, promotions, and otherwise assigning new tasks and responsibilities. When procedures are developed by a diverse group of people and vetted for bias, then used consistently, diversity improves.
And although metrics and statements on your website don’t mean much if they’re not backed up by accountability and action, sharing your diversity goals publicly may help by providing some accountability for you and your business.

Identifying Microaggressions

We use the term “microaggression” to describe the subtle but offensive comments or actions that result from unconscious biases when they’re acted out or spoken. These offenses usually reinforce stereotypes of a minority group.
This NPR story lists some examples of microaggressions: an African American woman being complimented for being “articulate,” people of certain ethnicities being asked where they’re “really” from, and LGBTQ individuals being told that they “don’t look gay.”
One employee may not recognize the impact of a statement or action, but the offended employee clearly feels the negative impact. It needs to be addressed before feelings begin to fester.

Responding to Microaggressions:

Because the employees at fault for these microaggressions are generally unaware that they’ve offended anyone, the best antidote is to let them know. However, for employees to feel comfortable calling out this kind of behavior, there already has to be a culture in place that makes employees feel safe speaking out.

Identifying Other, Subtle Forms of Unwelcoming Behavior

Any time someone at your company feels singled out or like they’re being treated differently based on some aspect of who they are, it’s a threat to your culture.
Employees are made to feel uncomfortable or unwelcome for a variety of reasons, some of which don’t even involve any interaction between employees.
For example, if an employee is listening to music with profane lyrics, displaying polarizing political posters, promoting a sexually suggestive dress code, or even having a conversation with offensive elements that other colleagues can overhear, that’s certainly enough to damage a culture of inclusion.
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There are other ways that offensive behaviors can get disguised. For example, many of the most offensive remarks at work are delivered in joke form or passed off as joking around. (Newsflash: A punchline doesn’t excuse sentiments that disrespect others.)
In other cases, managers try to disguise their ill will toward certain employees by passing their harsh criticism or unfair workloads off as work-related.
Any of these less direct forms of unwelcoming behavior can land a company in serious hot water legally. But long before then, these behaviors will have done serious damage to the company’s productivity and competitiveness.

Eradicating Subtle Unwelcoming Behaviors

The best way to manage subtle and unconscious bias is to create a workplace where employees are encouraged to speak freely and constructively about a topic, and where they are open to discuss without the fear of judgment. Healthy workplaces are built when employees who feel comfortable speaking up and expressing their concerns.

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