unconscious bias in the workplace: how to look beyond biases at work

Some of our team recently had the pleasure of attending a training event about unconscious bias held in partnership by the Canadian Women’s Foundation and Catalyst. These organizations do meaningful work to empower women at work and in their lives, and we’re proud to share some of the insights we gained.

As an avid supporter of increasing workplace diversity and adopting inclusive hiring processes, we aim to use our platform to shine a light on ways that organizations can be more inclusive. Understanding and acknowledging our unconscious biases and how they can subvert inclusivity, is key to build hiring processes that truly raise up everyone, no matter what they look like, what gender they are, or how they identify.

subverting unconscious biases at work

what are unconscious biases?

Unconscious biases, also known as implicit biases, are the snap judgments we make about others without thinking. They’re made and processed by our brains within a fraction of a second, and we’re not usually aware they’re happening. They can be based on our beliefs, social norms, past interactions, and other factors. Unconscious biases affect how we perceive and interact with people and social groups, and influence our decisions and behaviour, though we’re often unaware of their impact.

Unlike like explicit biases – such as outwardly discriminatory behaviour towards people of different races (racism) or genders (sexism) – everyone has unconscious biases. Unconscious biases typically manifest in more subtle ways. For instance, commenting on the unusualness of someone’s name, or assuming that the man in the room is in charge. The person may not intend to cause offense, or even realize they’ve said or done something hurtful.

things you should know about unconscious bias

  • Unconscious biases based on race and sexuality are extremely prevalent. 88% of white people hold unconscious pro-white bias, and 83% of straight people unconsciously favour other straight people over LGBTQ people.
  • Unconscious bias often goes against our own interests. Especially if you’re part of a minority group. Minority groups often internalize social norms and develop implicit biases opposite of what you might think. For instance 48% of black people hold a pro-white unconscious bias, as do 36% of Muslims.
  • Unconscious biases can contradict our consciously held beliefs and convictions. For instance someone might vehemently believe that women and men are equal in the workplace. However they might unconsciously believe that a male candidate is more inherently qualified for a job than a woman with similar credentials.
  • We’re more likely to rely on unconscious biases for decision making when we’re stressed, distracted or in competition. Workplaces naturally breed these feelings, so it’s especially important to check our biases and make an effort to be inclusive when at work.

steps you can take to look past your unconscious biases in the workplace

pause before you speak

Foot-in-mouth syndrome is real, and it’s a lot more common when you say whatever comes to mind without a care in the world. Unconscious biases are most likely to slip out when you blurt out your thoughts without considering how they might be interpreted by others. Want to make a joke? Stop and think: would everyone in the room appreciate this joke? Am I punching down or singling someone out? Am I making someone feel different or like they don’t belong? If you’re not sure, don’t say it. It’s as simple as that. Unconscious biases slip out because we aren’t thinking. Take a second or two to pause and consider your words, and more importantly, how they impact others. This gives time for your conscious thought processes to kick in and be your filter.

validate others’ experiences

Just because someone’s life or work experiences are different than yours doesn’t mean they’re wrong. There’s more than one path to get just about anywhere, and that includes at work. Acknowledge that it’s okay if everyone has different priorities, beliefs, and ways of working. If everyone on your team ends up at point C, does it really matter if they took path A or path B? This comes down to respecting differences. Rigid workplace processes and policies often reinforce our unconscious biases and hinder collaboration and inclusion. Question if processes are truly necessary. Do they serve a clear purpose or are they meant to police others’ behaviour just because that’s ‘the way things are done’?

stop to listen

How often do you ask a question thinking you already know the answer? Or how often do you ask for suggestions and ideas, even though you’ve already made up your mind what you’re going to do? This happens a lot in most workplaces. Businesses reward speedy, decisive decision making but this can cause us to drown out others’ ideas in favour of sticking with what we know. If you ask a question, stop and take the time to listen and understand why others’ have different beliefs than you. Ask follow up questions. Practice good listening and you might just gain a new perspective on a situation where you assumed you knew best.

connect with people who are different than you

Be proactive and seek out ideas from others, especially if they have a different worldview than you. At work, we often have our ‘go-to’ people who we consult for opinions and ideas. Stop relying on your comfortable inner circle and ask people who look different than you, who are at a different experience level, or who might otherwise have a unique perspective. It’s important to step outside your echo chamber to hear opinions and ideas that will force you to challenge your status quo. Is there someone who rarely speaks up in meetings? Why not ask them for their thoughts? You could gain some interesting insights.

check your language

Words matter. Finding the right ‘fit’ for a job is something we talk about a lot in the recruiting industry. However this seemingly innocent phrase can be extremely loaded for people who don’t slot neatly into socially acceptable norms. If you’re looking for someone who’s a ‘good fit for your team’ you’re implying that anyone who’s different is probably not what you’re looking for. Be aware of the message you’re putting out, and be willing to make changes. Instead of saying you need a ‘good fit,’ ask what qualities are truly necessary. Maybe you need a strong presenter? Or someone comfortable with sales? Even better, leave it open-ended. The more you try to narrow down what qualities are acceptable, the more people you’re writing off. An out of left field candidate may be just what your team needs.

question your hiring needs

You might not realize you’re doing it, but asking for arbitrary qualifications like 7 years of experience and a history in a leadership role can implicitly exclude women and minorities who traditionally have more difficulty advancing their careers into management-level roles. Is someone with 7 years of experience inherently more qualified than someone with 4? Probably not. Just because someone hasn’t held a management role yet doesn’t mean they’re not cut out to be a leader. It just means they haven’t been given an opportunity yet. Make an effort to judge candidates based on their potential, rather than their past. Be the employer to give someone a chance to prove they’re capable. This is how you gain the trust and loyalty of superstar employees who are just waiting for a chance to shine.

back up your words with action

It’s one thing to say your team is ‘diverse’ and leave it at that. It’s another to hold yourself accountable and educate yourself about increasing the inclusivity of your team and supporting the diverse people who are already part of your team. If you say ‘I care about the people on my team’, make an effort to get to know the people you work with and connect with each individual. 1-on-1 meetings are a great practice for leaders at all levels to adopt. Group meetings can often be impersonal or be dominated by the most extroverted group members. 1-on-1s allow everyone their moment to be the centre of your attention.

outwardly demonstrate your support

Throw your support behind others, especially if they’re different than you, and especially if you fit within societal norms and have accumulated social power. Don’t be afraid to stand up and call out bad behaviour you witness in your workplace. If you see someone acting insensitively and letting their biases fly freely, let them know. Politely, of course! They may not be trying to be insensitive, but they should know their behaviour is not acceptable. The targets of insensitive comments often stay silent because they’re ashamed or don’t feel they can stand up for themselves without repercussions. If you’re in a position of power, use it to be an ally. Also don’t be afraid to be vocal about your support or adopt visual signs of your allyship – for instance adding Pride sticker to your office door. Visibility matters. It leads to normalization and serves as signal you’re a safe person to come to if someone on your team needs assistance.

 

We’ve just scratched the surface with these tips. If you’re interested in even more resources to subvert unconscious bias and support women and minorities in the workplace, we encourage you to check out Canadian Women’s Foundation and Catalyst for more resources and insights.

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