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Addressing Unconscious Biases in the Workplace

March 06 2017 - by Dr. Lois Parkes, CLP's Regional Project Manager

If we are all honest, we would have to confess that we each have our biases and preferences. It is part of being human. Sometimes people are conscious of their biases, but oftentimes, biases operate at the unconscious level. These unconscious biases however manifest in very subtle ways that are often challenging to pinpoint. There is much research that provides evidence that unconscious biases drive organisational decision-making, including in the areas of recruitment, hiring, listening to team members’ suggestions and ideas, and deciding policies.

These unconscious biases also exist and are perpetuated at the organisational level, and is at the heart of an organisation’s culture. This makes the work of changing organisational culture very challenging, leaving employees believing that too often, there is a disconnect between stated policies and values and actual reality and lived experiences.

Unconscious biases can therefore have tremendous and debilitating influence on team and organisational functioning and effectiveness. But what can be done to address this challenge, given the unconscious nature of these biases? According to Howard Ross in his paper “Proven Strategies for Addressing Unconscious Bias in the Workplace” (CDO Insights, Vol. 2 Issue 5, 2008), organisations need to pursue strategies that actively seek to unearth hidden biases. Some recommended strategies are conducting an assessment of all areas of the employment life cycle (from assessing resumes to terminations) to determining hidden biases, and conducting anonymous surveys with current and past employees to get feedback on hidden biases, and following up with corrective action based on the survey findings.

In considering this issue:

  • What has been your own experience of unconscious bias in the workplace?
  • What effective strategies have you used or can suggest to address unconscious biases in organisations?

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Julie Meeks - Reply

Biases are indeed a bane, inhibiting organizational effectiveness as so well explained.  Unconscious biases are even more so.  My own organization was cornerback from the merger of three fairly independent units and many of the suspicions and assumptions about the "others" have persisted over the years.  The recommendation to undertake anonymous surveys of both past and present staff members to better understand this is a good one I will pursue.  I hope to hear examples of effective strategies which have overcome unconscious biases.