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What is unconscious bias?

This is the mental equivalent of muscle memory—making the same cognitive conclusions because you’re comfortable with them. As we face gaps in our own experiences, our brains tend to create mental shortcuts. These shortcuts are something we’re emotionally and cognitively comfortable with because venturing into new territory may be terrifying. All of us fall back on unconscious bias, even if we aren’t prejudiced.

Our unconscious bias leads to those convenient shortcuts. As in, “I know that someone who has silver hair is likely to retire in a few years. I’m passing them over for a position in my organization.” Unfortunately, unconscious bias can lead to discrimination.

What unconscious bias looks like

In your organization, you may have a good demographic mix of employees: men, women, white employees, black, and Hispanic employees. You’re happy you hired them and can show the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that you are complying with federal hiring regulations. In addition, most of them may be good, productive employees.

However, when you and your managers make promotion or hiring decisions, you may subconsciously fall back on what you know and feel most comfortable with: hiring young, white, blue-eyed or blonde employees.  Or when you evaluate current employees, you may down-rate employees of color or women while ranking white, male employees higher. That is “unconscious bias.”

Confronting unconscious bias in your company

This process may take several weeks or months, but it is vital you work on it. 

As you start this process, announce your plan to erase bias within your organization and encourage employees and management to participate. Educate your employees and begin building awareness of unconscious bias. Change your HR policies, procedures, and structures so you lessen the possibility for bias to creep in. Measure the results and set up attainable goals. Don’t be afraid to experiment, based on your employees. Then, make needed changes and try new processes that mean you’ll reduce instances of unconscious bias.

Measure results and make changes

Based on the results you get from your company-wide experiment, it’s time to make those human resource policy changes. Appoint a committee of those who were most committed to eliminating unconscious bias. Make them members of your commission or group so positive changes can be made. Finally, set new targets based on bias understanding and awareness of bias.