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Is Unconscious Bias an Obstacle to Your Diversity and Inclusion Goals?

February 22, 2018

Unconscious bias

Most companies, if they are honest, will admit that they haven’t reached the diversity and inclusion goals they have established. We’ve all seen the statistics that prove the business case for diversity and inclusion. Many of us thought that it was just a matter of time before more women, people of color, and other underrepresented groups of individuals would make their way up the corporate, academic, medical, and legal ladders.

The question remains: Why hasn’t it happened to the extent expected? Increasingly, the research, observations, and experience point to unconscious bias as the answer.

I define “unconscious bias” as stereotypical beliefs about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. No company or organization is truly free of unconscious bias. Once it is acknowledged, managing it within a corporate/organizational structure requires a concentration on diversity and inclusion. Understanding the implications of unconscious bias helps managers and senior executives create a corporate culture that is effective and enduring.

What to do about unconscious bias?

The first step sounds simple: Recognize that unconscious bias exists within most organizations, including yours. It sounds simple, but believe me, it is not. Unconscious bias affects all aspects of our working lives. The task of managers is to understand the concept and to employ techniques to manage it.

For the success of your company, you need to understand how unconscious bias affects literally all of your professional activities and how to mitigate its damaging effects. It’s not enough for the human resources department to address the problem. In my experience, the companies that attack the problem straight on are the ones most able to deal with it.

Unconscious bias exists in every level of business. It affects hiring, evaluation, promotion, dismissal, organizational changes, and customer and supplier relationships.

For senior managers, the task is to ensure your staff understands that unconscious preferences and biases are normal and that there are techniques to help manage individual and organizational biases.

The goals of any program designed to create an environment that mitigates unconscious bias as much as humanly possible involve developing a deeper understanding of the filters we use to view, interpret, and judge ourselves and others. At the same time, you will begin to understand the personal and organizational values and norms of your organization, where those values came from, and how they impact the quality and effectiveness of your business and talent management decisions.

Unconscious bias: a problem with a solution

I tell my clients that by recognizing and dealing with the implications of unconscious bias, they will put stronger employees in every role. Employees will become more engaged. When reviews of your workplace are made on sites such as Glassdoor, employees’ “word of mouth” will enhance your company’s reputation, which in turn impacts everything from sales to employee productivity. And finally, the fresh breath of perspective encourages invigorating new approaches and promotes a healthier and more productive work environment.

Taken together, the observations and data produce conclusions that are inescapable. Unconscious bias exists, and the longer an organization goes without addressing it, the more difficult it is to incorporate the processes and training needed to mitigate it. For those who run organizations and companies, unconscious bias is a problem with a solution. It’s not necessarily an easy one, but one where recognition, training, education, and professional development can be provided at every level.

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About The Author

Pam Alfrey Hernandez is the founder and president of The Right Reflection, an Omaha-based management and organizational development firm. She is a former chief operating officer of a national insurance company.

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