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How to reduce unconscious bias at work

No matter how much we might not want to admit it, unconscious biases influence a vast majority of our decisions. This is due to the fact that our brains can consciously process 40 pieces of information per second—while we unconsciously process 11 million pieces. So, in order to keep up with all of the stimuli around us, we create mental shortcuts that ostensibly make decision-making easier.

Unfortunately, many of these shortcuts do more harm than good. 2012 study out of Yale found that—when given the choice between two similar candidates, one from each sex—college faculty preferred hiring male candidates who they perceived to be more competent and worthy of commanding higher salaries. It didn’t matter whether faculty members were male or female; all were biased against women applicants.

“Despite efforts to recruit and retain more women,” the researchers wrote, “a stark gender disparity persists within academic science.”

If unconscious biases are not kept in check, organizations and the employees that power them might let these biases influence their decisions in a way that holds them back.

Examples of unconscious bias

What exactly might unconscious bias look like at the workplace? Here are some common examples:

Now that you have a good idea of what unconscious biases look like, let’s turn our attention to what you can do, specifically, to reduce the chances your company is governed by them.

Steps to eliminate unconscious bias

Unconscious biases are not permanent. While it may be impossible to completely eradicate these biases, we can take steps to reduce the chances as many of our decisions are influenced by them. Follow these nine steps to limit the unconscious biases at your organization.

1. Learn what unconscious biases are

The first step of limiting the impact unconscious biases have on your organization is making sure everyone is aware that they exist. “Awareness training is the first step to unraveling unconscious bias because it allows employees to recognize that everyone possesses them and to identify their own,” explains Francesca Gino, a professor at Harvard Business School.

2. Assess which biases are most likely to affect you

Take tests—like Harvard’s Implicit Association Test—to figure out which of your individual perceptions are most likely to be governed by unconscious biases. Armed with that information, you can take proactive steps to address them on a personal basis.

3. Figure out where biases are most likely to affect your organization

Biases tend to affect who gets hired, who gets promoted, who gets raises and who gets what kind of work, among other things. By knowing where bias is most likely to creep in, you can take steps to ensure that biases are considered when important decisions are made in those areas.

4. Modernize your approach to hiring

In order to make sure that unconscious biases don’t adversely impact your hiring decisions, you may need to make some big changes. For example, studies show that the wording in job descriptions, can discourage women from applying for certain positions. Rework job descriptions so you’re able to draw from a wider pool of applicants. You may also want to try judging candidates “blindly,” i.e., not looking at anyone’s name or gender and instead hiring on merit alone. Additionally, consider giving candidates sample assignments to see what their work contributions might look like. Finally, standardize the interview process, as unstructured interviews tend to lead to bad hiring decisions.

5. Let data inform your decisions

If your company’s upper management echelons are only staffed by white men, unconscious biases are determining which employees are promoted. Make it a priority to diversify your management team so that more voices and backgrounds are represented.

6. Bring diversity into your hiring decisions

If your goal is to hire a diverse staff, make sure that there’s diversity among the group of people tasked with hiring new employees. Otherwise, you may continue hiring the same kinds of homogenous workers—despite your best intentions.

7. Encourage team members to speak up about biases

The more people involved in a decision—and the more transparent the decision-making process is—the less likely an organization will be to be affected by unconscious biases. Create a culture that encourages open dialogue. That way, when employees realize a decision might have been influenced by unconscious biases, they won’t be afraid to speak up and set the record straight.

8. Hold employees accountable

Actions speak louder than words. While you shouldn’t necessarily punish someone for making a decision influenced by unconscious biases, you should keep track of whether such decisions are being made. “If a manager gives 10 performance reviews, five to men and five to women, and four out of the highest five are women, it should at the very least call for an inquiry into whether there might be a pro-female bias in the process,” writes Howard J. Ross in the Harvard Business Review. “It might be total coincidence, but it is worth checking.” If the data reveals bias, someone may need to intervene.

9. Set diversity goals.

From more innovation to more talented employees to higher retention rates, there are a number of reasons why companies should focus on creating diverse workplaces. Set goals to make sure that your diversity program is more than just lip service and you actually make progress toward building a diverse team.

All of us are affected by unconscious biases. From an organizational perspective, the sooner we realize this reality—and take proactive steps to overcome the biases that hold us back—the stronger our companies will become, and the better positioned we’ll all be to serve our customers effectively.