Making a Dent in Unconscious Bias

February 19, 2019

Unconscious bias

There’s not a lot you can do to stop unconscious bias—we all have it in one form or another against one “other” or another.

But you can train yourself, your team, and your workforce to understand how unconscious bias can manifest itself, how it affects its recipients, and how you can lessen its impact, says Patricia Quiddington, a professional certified coach at Blue Arbor International LLC and an AMA instructor.

“It’s a subject that is becoming increasingly important and that companies want to have covered,” she says.

How we deal with bias in the workplace has improved in two ways, Quiddington shares. The first is that more and more businesspeople are realizing that they have biases, rather than claiming they’re not prejudiced at all. They know they need to be more self-aware—and they want to change, she says.

The second is that the people who are impacted by the biases are being much more constructive about it. They’re more willing to work with their co-workers or bosses to create change. “Things are shifting on both sides,” she reports.

How unconscious bias affects a workplace

If you’re a manager and you have an assumption about an employee based on a cultural or gender-based bias, that person will often become what you expect of him or her, Quiddington says. For example, if you believe one ethnic group likes to take long lunches, an employee who’s a member of that group may live up to your expectations. If you think another ethnic group is good with numbers, you may end up giving them more financial work.

Neither approach takes the individual’s actual skills, interests, and work ethic into account, she says. There’s less productivity as a result. The employees are less involved, less committed or motivated—and sometimes angry.

When it comes to gender, women often face appearance-based bias, such as “they don’t take care of themselves” if they have gray hair or are overweight—biases that generally don’t apply to men, Quiddington says. Or, there’s an assumption that working moms will leave work early a lot.

When people don’t make assumptions about you, you feel more respected, she said. “You feel more comfortable being yourself and feeling that you’re able to offer everything you have to offer,” Quiddington says. “If you feel respected, you’re going to better perform, you’re going to feel like you work in a safe environment, a safe place where you can be yourself and you can bloom and grow professionally and personally.”

Working against unconscious bias

Quiddington suggests these tips as part of the continuing process to not let bias affect your interactions or decisions in the workplace:

If you are the recipient of bias, try not to take a blaming attitude. Rather, be solution-focused and future-oriented, Quiddington says. Explain to the person who expressed the bias why it was biased and how it affected you. You could say something like, “I’m not the victim, I’m not trying to feel sorry for myself; I’m just trying to give you objective data of what was said, what was conveyed…and this is maybe what I would suggest for next time.”

If an employee or co-worker accuses you of bias, take responsibility for your words and actions. “Be open to [the accusation], receive the information, and ask, ‘How would you like me to handle it next time?’” Quiddington says. Tell them you were not aware you said something offensive and thank them for making you aware of it.

Take steps to prevent prejudice from affecting decisions. For example, you can establish a blind resume review system that removes applicants’ names and gender in the first round, Quiddington says.

Watch for internal warning signs. If you’re about to utter something based on a stereotype, practice stopping yourself. Ask yourself, “‘How can I make sure that I raise that red flag in my head and then stop?’” Quiddington says.

Continue to learn, and ask for support. Ask a peer or employee to help hold you accountable for practicing unbiased behavior so you don’t go back to old habits. Keep learning, both about yourself and about the group(s) you have a bias about, she says.

“A lot of companies will provide unconscious bias training, or diversity and inclusion training, and it’s a good thing, but it still doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist,” Quiddington says. “Everybody has to work harder.”

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About The Author

Jan Arzooman is a proofreader, copyeditor, and writer in AMA’s creative services/marketing department. She has worked in editorial for more than 20 years. Arzooman also is a visual artist.

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