Beyond Unconscious Bias – Leadership Insights and Actions

Beyond Unconscious Bias – Leadership Insights and Actions

Everyone is biased – even you.

Unconscious bias is a prejudice that we are unaware of, and which happens outside of our control. It is a bias that occurs automatically and is triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences. Unconscious bias can be based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, physical appearance – any dimension causing a person to be different from others.

Check out these examples of unconscious bias from an awareness-raising quiz:

  • A research group sent two resumes for a laboratory manager position to 127 male and female professors. Both candidates were white, age 22, and had identical grades and comparable references. One was male and the other female. Responses from the professors showed that the male candidate was more likely to be hired and at a salary $4,000 higher than that proposed for the female applicant.
  • A government survey using false identities concluded that jobseekers with white-sounding names could expect to receive one positive response for every nine job applications. A job seeker with an Asian or African-American sounding name would have to distribute 16 resumes in order to obtain a similar result.

Unconscious biases are often revealed through micro-inequities – small, seemingly insignificant behaviors that have a corrosive effect on employees, the workplace and professional behaviors. Micro-inequities include: being left off a list or always being placed last, not being introduced at a meeting or receiving a perfunctory introduction, managers looking at phones during conversations, ideas cut down before they can be considered, names consistently misspelled or mispronounced, sarcastic responses, supervisors hovering in a controlling manner.

Unconscious bias directly hits a company’s bottom line

Biases damage the workplace. They lower the ability of managers to make successful hiring and promotion decisions.  They prevent people of diverse backgrounds from contributing ideas and taking chances in the office. Valuable employees may be lost to the company.

According to the Corporate Leavers Survey, more than 2 million U.S. professionals voluntarily resign from their jobs annually because of micro-inequities or the snowballing effect of slights and the perception of unfairness in the workplace. This rigorous study, the first large-scale review of the issue, shows that unfairness costs U.S. employers $64 billion on an annual basis.

The survey also reported that people of color were three times more likely than white men or white women to say workplace unfairness was the primary reason for their resignations. Ongoing research and reports regarding unconscious bias often refer to the Corporate Leavers Survey and consistently uphold its findings.

The Corporate Leavers Survey results are also reinforced by a wealth of research showing that recruiting, retaining, and promoting employees are important issues for employee engagement which impacts the bottom line. Replacing employees who leave costs companies time, money and other resources.

Anti-bias strategies that work

Right now widespread corporate attention is focused on workplace fairness and unconscious bias. When a Starbucks manager in Philadelphia called the police to take away two black men seated in the coffee shop waiting for their friend, the video of police arrest that hit the airwaves world-wide caused Starbucks to take action. Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz said the store manager was acting on “unconscious bias.” The company fired her and apologized to the men. Today, May 29th, Starbucks closed over 8,000 stores nationwide for several hours to provide 175,000 employees with racial-bias education. The training was designed to address implicit bias, promote conscious inclusion, prevent discrimination and ensure that everyone inside a Starbucks store feels safe and welcome, said a company statement.

Did the training work? Although psychologists say it is hard to unlearn unconscious bias, Wharton School management professor Stephanie Creary, points out that anti-bias training can make people more aware of their prejudices, stating: “The future is in interventions that can change their behavior now and perhaps their attitudes over the long run.”

For example, anti-bias training might have prompted the Starbucks manager who called the police to pause first and ask herself how she would feel and what she would do if the two people in Starbucks staying too long were women with babies or white men in business suits.

Making inclusion real – Taking Action

Leaders can take action by increasing awareness of personal biases and behaving in ways that foster inclusive work environments.  Last October, The Boston Club’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee, organized a leadership panel called Leadership in Practice: Making Inclusion Real.  The Committee focused on ways to address unconscious bias in the workplace, cultivating and inspiring a diverse workforce, and leadership accountability.

The four speakers on a panel moderated by Robert Urban, Global Head of Innovation, Johnson & Johnson, included Maryanne Ravenel, Manager, Diversity & Inclusion, BCBSMA; Jennifer Erskine, Partner, EY; and Radhames Nova, CEO, Junior Achievement of Northern New England.

As an outgrowth of the forum, leaders pledged to take actions that would affirm their commitment to workplace diversity and inclusion and to inspire others to do so. While the issues are complex, below are some examples of some of the commitments that were taken.

What individuals can do: pledges to combating unconscious bias:

  • Stop or pause – think about bias and how it may be impacting a decision. Be aware and authentic. Do this daily.
  • Take an unconscious/implicit bias test and use it in interactions within your organization.
  • Don’t allow double standards.
  • Have compassion for others in every interaction; pause before reacting; speak up when you see unconscious bias.
  • Ensure that organizations are held accountable for unconscious bias attitudes. Develop metrics to highlight them.
  • Promote safe places for “candid conversations” on incidents of bias.

What companies can do:

  • Be intentional. Start with examining personal biases
  • Start a conversation with your direct reports and employees
  • Engage in educational opportunities and tools to minimize Unconscious Bias
  • Examine the impact of bias on your own team and workforce – hiring decisions, talent development, communications, promotions, mentorship and sponsorship
  • Reach out to employee resource groups and business resource groups for insights
  • Identify ways to monitor and make changes in processes and behaviors to mitigate bias
  • Hold yourself and leaders accountable for cultivating healthy, productive and inclusive environments for ALL.

Since we are all biased, it will take ALL of us to increase awareness and more importantly, behave in ways that result in inclusive, inspired work environments.

Juliette Mayers is the Founder and CEO of Inspiration Zone, a firm specializing in diversity and inclusion strategy and engagement. A networking expert, she is the author of The Guide to Strategic Networking and A Black Woman’s Guide to Networking  Visit and (register to receive updates) Follow @juliettemayers.

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