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Addressing Unconscious Bias in the Workplace: Strategies to Foster a More Inclusive Work Environment

Overt harassment and discrimination is only one form of bias that impacts employees from marginalized groups. Unconscious biases can be equally detrimental to their sense of belonging and inclusion in the workplace, and can often be more challenging to identify and address.

The reason is right there in the name. Not only are unconscious biases unintentional, but many people aren’t even aware that they have them. What’s more, they can end up influencing workplace policies and cultures, leading to the bias being perpetuated and amplified across the organization.

Mitigating bias is often an ongoing process requiring regular assessment and adjustment of workplace strategies and systems as the business evolves. The good news is, when an organization puts in this effort, even long-held unconscious biases can be corrected. As Toronto Recruitment Consultant Melanie McQueen explains, “By fostering awareness, education, and consistent action, organizations can make significant strides toward creating a bias-free workplace that empowers all employees.”

What steps can your organization take to achieve this? Here are three strategies to try.

Open a dialogue about bias in the workplace.

The first step to fixing a problem is acknowledging that it exists, and that’s true of unconscious bias, as well. Speaking openly about biases that exist in your workplace, and ways that they can be addressed, gives your team the language and tools to identify their own biases as well as those that are worked into the structure and policies of the organization.

You don’t need to do this entirely internally, either. Melanie McQueen suggests, “You can educate employees about various forms of bias through workshops and training that promote awareness and understanding.”

This should be paired with improvements to your internal communication. Melanie’s tips: “Encourage a culture of open dialogue where employees can report bias incidents without fear of retribution, implement effective reporting mechanisms, and ensure that each complaint is taken seriously and thoroughly investigated.”

Not all of this conversation needs to be formal and serious. Amanda Graham, Recruitment Director in Summit’s Toronto office, recommends planning Lunch & Learn events for your team. “These can be a great way to shed light on structural and unconscious bias and start the conversation around these issues that might be happening subconsciously within the workplace. Opening up the conversation creates a safe space for employees to air their experiences and challenges they might be facing, and employees who may be practicing bias within the workplace can become aware of their role in these problems, which they may not have thought about before.”

This kind of safe and open dialogue is often the first step in the journey to mitigate bias, though Amanda notes it’s important to ensure employees truly feel safe sharing their story to get the most out of them. As she says, “Ensure that there’s an open and respectful environment during these learning sessions so employees feel comfortable sharing their experiences.”

Review and standardize your hiring processes.

“In an ideal world, hiring decisions would be solely based on qualifications, experience, and skills,” Serena Milani notes. “However, the reality is often far from this utopian vision. Unconscious biases subtly influence the hiring process, and while they’re often unintentional and automatic, they can lead to unfair treatment and perpetuate inequalities in the workplace.”

If bias influences which candidates are selected, this can prevent an organization from building the kind of diverse team that can be beneficial in building a more inclusive work environment. One particularly common form of this is affinity bias, where hiring managers unconsciously prefer candidates with similar backgrounds, experiences, or interests. As Serena explains, “Shared interests can foster collaboration, but relying solely on this factor can result in overlooking diverse talent.”

One way to minimize the influence of bias on hiring decisions is to use a standardized interview process to reduce the likelihood that different candidates will be asked different questions based on their perceived suitability. Melanie McQueen advises this, saying, “This reduces room for subjective judgment and encourages fair treatment.”

Using diverse hiring panels can also help to prevent bias from influencing hiring decisions. When a variety of perspectives are involved in making decisions, the impact of individual biases is minimized, and this can ensure you’re making more informed, fair hiring decisions.

The bias training mentioned above can also play a role here, too. As Serena Milani says, “Hiring managers, HR professionals, and recruiters need to be regularly trained on unconscious bias so they have tools to counteract it and foster a fairer hiring process.”

Start from the top.

The leadership in an organization sets the example that other team members follow. If that example is influenced by bias, then it will be more likely to be present elsewhere in the organization, too.

This is a point Melanie McQueen raised as a critical step in removing bias from organizations. As she says, “Executives and managers should champion inclusivity and hold themselves accountable for bias reduction efforts.”

Some steps that business leaders can take to uncover and address their own biases include:

  • Take an Implicit Association Test (IAT) to identify unconscious biases that you aren’t aware of .
  • Be thoughtful and intentional with making decisions. Unconscious biases are most likely to influence actions and decisions made quickly based on assumptions or preconceived ideas. Thinking carefully about why you make the decisions you do can help you to remove bias from them.
  • Interrogate your first reactions and impressions to people and situations. When you make a snap judgment, you’re drawing on the same assumptions that form unconscious biases, and may be letting these guide your perception more than you realize.
  • Expand your professional network and social circle to include a wider variety of people. Getting exposure to a wider range of perspectives and backgrounds can help to undermine any unconscious biases that have taken root in your thought processes.
  • Stay open to outside feedback about your potential biases. It’s natural to have a defensive reaction when someone points out that something you said or did may be biased, but an outside perspective can often be beneficial in identifying biases. When someone calls you out, do your best to resist the knee-jerk defensive reaction and view this type of feedback as an opportunity for improvement.

Rooting out unconscious bias is a challenge at both the individual and organizational level, but it is one every leader and company can tackle when they put in the work to do so. We hope this article has helped you identify strategies to mitigate bias in your team.

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