“What is necessary to change a person is to change his awareness of himself.”
If you glance at the paper on any given day, you will find articles describing customers’ or employees’ real-life experiences of outright bias due to gender, racial, cultural, sexual orientation, or age differences.
- Most recently a prominent coffee chain upped the ante on employee training and altered a long-held important store policy on “loitering” in a response to a nationally visible event of employee bias.
- A person of color, a student at Yale University was reported to and investigated by the police for napping in the “wrong” location.
- In the past 6 months in our area, both a high ranking city official and a similarly ranked state official were fired for overstepping boundaries with other genders on their teams and accused of unfair practices.
- A lawyer in NYC overtly attacked Spanish-speaking customers and the staff in a restaurant for speaking Spanish.
HR departments today have their hands full reacting to overt employee discrimination in the workplace. These incidents are cringe-worthy because they are obvious cases of discrimination and harassment. I’d guess that every HR department, even of small companies, has at least one law firm on speed-dial to clean up the messes and spends a lot of time and money in remediation and prevention programs. We are working hard to ensure that gross acts of bias and discrimination get eliminated.
But what about the rest of us?
While most of us have not behaved in any overtly discriminatory ways, it is highly likely that we have exercised implicit bias throughout our career.
Implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control…The implicit associations we harbor in our subconscious cause us to have feelings and attitudes about other people based on characteristics such as race, ethnicity, age, and appearance (http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/research/understanding-implicit-bias/).
The probability is high that we have been influenced by this bias: in hiring processes, setting an organizational policy or practice, in decisions, performance reviews, or in other interactions with our staff or our teams where we exercised our judgement or assessed a situation.
There are plenty of research studies pointing to the pervasive nature of implicit bias; there is a strong scientific basis for asserting the reality of it (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-to-think-about-implicit-bias/). Harvard has even developed a test for it, called the Implicit Association Test.
The purpose of this blog is not to dump a load of guilt and shame on people or to ferret out offenders, but simply to raise awareness of the issue. By raising awareness, our aim is to foster a diverse work environment that is truly inclusive and equitable. An equitable work environment means a highly engaged workforce that feels respected, and, over the long run, presents less conflict and legal challenges for HR to deal with.
But the challenge is this:
How do you even recognize or eliminate a thought process that happens at a sub-conscious level? And what can you as a manager, supervisor, or other type of organizational leader do about it?
This article published by SHRM contains some excellent concrete methods of addressing implicit bias in your workplace. It is definitely worth the read!
The SHRM article also points out how HR and managers can also recommend and employ practices and systems that make it harder and less likely for people to use certain kinds of biases.
Awareness-raising discussions and assignments found in employee training programs about overt and implicit bias really can make a difference in the workplace. Invista Performance Solutions’ instructors utilize a method called Double Loop Learning when facilitating sessions in Diversity and Inclusion. It opens people’s minds to the underlying beliefs and assumptions they make about others. Through safe discussion, and reflection employees can learn to recognize more easily when they are acting on knee-jerk assumptions, when their quick intuition about a person may not be reliable, and they need to be more objective. Increased awareness leads to changed behaviors over time.