Skip to main content

A Primer for Businesses Developing their Understanding of Diversity, Inclusion, and Social Responsibility Best Practices

The scope of implicit bias

Unlike explicit bias, where individuals are aware of their prejudices and attitudes towards certain groups, implicit bias is a kind of discrimination that exists in the workplace and broader society. Implicit bias causes people to make decisions based on stereotypes or prejudices without consciously doing so.1

Over the last few decades, negative attitudes towards ethnicity, gender, age, weight, and disabilities have steadily declined.2 However, while people are less likely to express these ideas explicitly, institutional inequalities remain. 

Implicit bias attempts to explain why discrimination persists, despite societal changes. Even those with the best intentions can make decisions that favor one group or discriminate against another. This is largely due to the fact that society has established systematic oppression, based on historical pretexts, wherein there are cultural boundaries that either help or hinder groups – depending on the specific advantage/disadvantage at play. When added together, these decisions can further disadvantage women, minorities, and other marginalized groups.

Because implicit biases exist below the surface, they’re harder to detect and address. An example of implicit bias is favoring or being more receptive to familiar-sounding names than those from other cultural groups. Implicit bias doesn’t mean that inclusivity is not one of our values. It means we are unaware of how our own implicit bias can impact our actions and decisions. Thus, if we know that we maintain these beliefs, we won’t actively work to fix them. Likewise, if organizations fail to account for how biases affect their decisions, they can’t set about finding a remedy.

Where does it stem from?

Implicit bias stems from the way our mind processes information. The brain processes about 11 million bits of information every second. However, our conscious brain can only manage around 50 or 60 bits.3

As we process information, our brain comes up with shortcuts and patterns to help us make straightforward and quick decisions as a way of managing data. Unfortunately, these “”quick and dirty” shortcuts are often wrong and result in individuals being judged on irrelevant characteristics. 

In short, the brain comes up with shortcuts and patterns to help us make straightforward and quick decisions. Unfortunately, these “quick and dirty” shortcuts are often wrong and result in individuals being judged based on irrelevant characteristics.

Like the aforementioned example, one Yale study looked at how faculty members rated candidates’ applications based on a randomly assigned male or female name. On average, candidates with male names were ranked as more competent. Additionally, the faculty recommended they should earn higher salaries. It is instances such as these that perpetuate stereotypes, and with them, reduce upward mobility.4

Unfortunately, assumptions and stereotypes are hard to shake despite our best efforts. Even when we feel we are free of prejudices, research suggests we are not. Our background, environment, experiences, and the media can powerfully affect our beliefs.  

Implicit bias can come in many forms. For example, it can involve unwitting discrimination against people based on:5

  • ethnicity
  • gender
  • age
  • disability
  • political affiliation
  • background
  • weight
  • sexual orientation

How does implicit bias harm productivity?

Implicit bias can occur at any level of an organization. These errors can affect judgment and harm productivity. For example, a Havard study showed that working for a biased manager reduces minorities’ productivity.6

Additionally, implicit bias affects employee retention. A report by the think tank Coqual suggests that of the number of employees who perceived prejudices at work:

  • Around half had looked for a new job in the last six months
  • 30% said they were planning to leave in the next year.

Implicit bias also plays a large role in recruitment. When employers let prejudices or stereotypes affect their decision-making, they hire candidates for the wrong reasons. Specific candidates are seen as more competent, intelligent, or capable based on identity alone, often at the cost of better prospective employees.7

Furthermore, workplaces that exhibit implicit bias fail to achieve diversity and inclusion. The absence of these characteristics can make a workplace less productive and less attractive for new hires and customers alike.8

How to mitigate implicit bias?

There are several solutions, both big and small, that can help mitigate the effects of implicit bias in the workplace.

#1. Awareness

The first step on the road to combating implicit biases is to acknowledge that they exist. Awareness training can help employees spot areas where their judgment may be questionable. Additionally, it can give them the tools they need to reduce its effect.

However, research has shown that these methods won’t work on their own. Instead, they should be viewed as a first step.9

#2. Identify areas where bias will affect your business

It’s essential to understand which areas of your business will be affected by biases. Examine areas like hiring, company culture, client interactions, promotions, compensation, etc. 

Once you know where bias can exist, you can begin to examine each process and identify ways to decrease its effects. Your ultimate goal should be to establish a work environment where equity and inclusion are at the forefront of each and every executive and personal decision, making for a more inclusive culture.

#3. Make diversity part of your hiring process

One of the best ways to combat bias is to have a diverse workforce. As such, it’s a good idea to ensure that your hiring practices ensure you have a good mix of candidates. 

Approach the hiring process with the ideology that equity is foundational, rather than the less inclusive notion of equality.

There are several approaches that can help reduce bias in hiring. Blind applications, where protected characteristics are redacted, can reduce the effects of prejudice in recruitment. Additionally, conducting interviews by phone can help mitigate the assumptions made because of a candidate’s physical appearance.

Consider how you word your job applications. This Gender Decoder app can help ensure you write applications that appeal to both men and women.10

#4. Use data and AI to drive decisions

Data analytics and AI offer paths for making better decisions in the workplace. A blended approach that uses humans and AI could work to eliminate biases by making recommendations based solely on relevant characteristics.

However, these solutions are in their early stages. Additionally, one oft-cited challenge is how we program AI not to contain our biases. Blind tests that remove demographic information could provide a promising solution.11

With that, it is important that each step towards reducing implicit bias (thus giving space for diversity to flourish), is scrutinized under a lens of continuous improvement. Each step is inherently flawed, as are our own implicit biases, so it is essential that we adapt and allow room for personal, technological, and professional growth.

#5. Encourage opinions and listening

It’s essential to get the opinions of your employees, especially those who are affected most by implicit bias. Collecting this information can be done informally or via surveys. 

Of course, some employees might be reluctant to speak out on the issues for various reasons. So ensure that you find a way for them to express how they feel anonymously and without fear of punishment or retaliation. Make your company a safe space for all voices, actively pursuing a work culture rich in diversity, creativity, and inclusion.

#6 Actively pursue an anti-oppressive framework both in and out of office

Oppression and subsequent implicit biases cannot be challenged passively. It is vital that each member of your organization actively pursues an anti-oppressive framework with continued commitment. 

As an employee or an organization, it is important to confront oppression and implicit biases. Learning to identify these biases is the first step. Developing an inclusive framework coupled with education and engagement will further dismantle harmful implicit biases.

To pursue more information on understanding and mitigating the impact of implicit bias, we have made a collection of educational slides that can be accessed here.