How To Recognize And Fight Bias In The Workplace

Bias invades our lives even in places where you don’t expect it. Do you automatically think that your teen kids’ music is too loud, the old gentleman in the queue before you is too slow, the doctor is too young to know anything, the bank teller with a tattoo not trustworthy? When you have these thoughts, are you biased? And do you actually have these thoughts, or are they completely unconscious, so you don’t think about them but act on them nevertheless?

The most visible and frequently talked about is race. We all have certain ideas and biases when it comes to race. These biases and prejudices are shaped by the stereotypes we are exposed to. They shape our perception of reality, what we pay attention to, and even what we remember. And all this without us being aware of the power they hold over us.

Categories and labels

We use categories to sort out the world around us and make it simpler. Without categorization, we would have a tough time going through our days, keeping our sanity. However, what categories we create is heavily influenced by the culture we live in. Depending on where we live, we give different importance to categories like race, religion, or social class. These may even change with time. The same category can be seen as radically different in different places. Jennifer Eberhardt mentions an example of a fair-skinned person who may be considered white in Brazil but black in the United States.

Once we create categories, we give them labels. These labels represent the stereotypes of a particular category or a group of people and then lead to prejudice. When you meet someone, your brain automatically sorts them to a specific category, finds the label, and tells you what to expect from them even though you never met them before. It quickly makes sense of the world around you, and as a result, you don’t need to make that much effort to figure out who they are. You rely on stereotypes, and you are biased. It all happens in a second, unintentionally and unconsciously.

Once we create categories and labels and assess the information through these categories, we are set. It is tough to unlearn these categories. Every new piece of information we receive gets automatically filtered through these categories and interpreted in a biased way. Our brain shoots for consistency and confirmation of what it already knows.

The problem with stereotypes is that we unconsciously apply stereotypes even to ourselves. Consider the IAT test. Many of the women who take the test are surprised to discover that they too associate pursuing a career with men and a family with women, even though publicly they would never admit that. Our unconscious stereotypes are real and can, therefore, hold us back without us realizing it.

Confirmation bias

Another way our brain simplifies the world around us is by selecting what we pay attention to. Attention is a reaffirming device for biases and beliefs we already have. Jennifer Eberhardt in Biased, notes the words of the founder of modern psychology, William James, who said in 1890 that attention creates no idea. An idea must already be there before we can attend to it.

Once you pay attention to something, your brain switches into a high-gear on confirmation bias. It starts seeking information that would confirm its original belief and ignoring anything that doesn’t fit the picture. Your brain will use the confirmation bias to reinforce the stereotypes and explain any discrepancy we see that doesn’t fit the expectation we have of this category of people. This is why it is so easy for “fake news” to spread. They anchor on our preconceived notions. Regardless of whether they are objectively true or not, we trust them more than our own eyes.

Bias training

Even a well-executed bias training is not going to remove biases from people’s decision making. However, it can be an eye-opener. It can lead to people being more mindful of how they interact with others.

The downside of bias training is that it often stresses how much bias there is. When you learn that everyone is biased, that it is “normal,” that it is how the brain is wired, you don’t feel the need to change. You may think that that’s the way things are and be done with it. People adjust to the norms. If they perceive that the norm is that everyone is biased, then they don’t see the need to change.

Iris Bohnet talks about our inability to suppress unconscious bias. Even when the participants of several studies were asked to suppress their tendency to be favorable towards a particular category, they couldn’t do so if that violated stereotypes. In some cases, instructions to resist the stereotype backfired and led to the opposite effect of increased bias. When you go through a diversity training that talks about bias against older people in the workforce, you are then more likely to act less favorably to older candidates as your brain will work overtime to find some flaws. You can then refuse them not based on their age but on the perceived lack of skills you just made up. You prove to yourself that you are good; you are not against older people in the workforce; you are just looking for the most skilled candidate.

Another potential problem with bias training is in so-called moral credentialing. You go through the training and earn moral credentials, a moral license, as someone who cares and wants to be unbiased. You established your credentials as a righteous nonprejudiced person. You already showed you care about being inclusive by attending the training. You are trained and therefore good. That means bias doesn’t apply anymore to you, so you don’t need to consider it. The bias or diversity training checked your goodness box, and now you can act more biased than ever.

This type of moral credentialing has been studies in a myriad of domains. One of the most famous was a case from Taiwan when some health study participants were told they are receiving multivitamins while others were told they received placebos. In reality, everyone got placebos. However, those who believed they received multivitamins and therefore had done something for their health were more likely to smoke cigarettes. They granted themselves a moral license to behave less healthily as they were already doing enough for their health by getting the multivitamins.

The same applies to companies. Because they do bias and diversity training, they may feel like they have checked the box of doing something against prejudice and therefore spend less effort on setting up the proper processes and enforcing unbiased decision making.

Color blindness

One of the most common strategies to fight racial bias is the so-called color blindness. Try not to think about color, not to notice it, and your decisions will be fair and bias-free. Unfortunately, it is nonsense not supported by science. You can’t fight unconscious bias by pretending it doesn’t exist. The color-blind approach to diversity and prejudice stands in the way toward equality. When you pretend not to see color, you also implicitly don’t see discrimination based on color. The same applies to other categories. You may say that you don’t see age or gender, and therefore it doesn’t impact your decision making. It does!

Jennifer Eberhardt describes an experiment when the researchers set the children mindset either to the color-blind or to a diverse-minded way of thinking. Then they listened to stories about other children. Some of the stories had a racial component, like a child who was intentionally tripped when playing soccer because of their skin color. Only 50% of the color-blind group saw this behavior as discriminatory, compared to 80% of those in the diverse-minded group. Teachers who listened to children from the color-blind group to describe the situation were less likely to take corrective action. Encouraging children to be color-blind led to their inability to detect discrimination and ultimately had the unintended consequence of more discrimination and racial inequality.

So what de-biasing techniques actually work? What can you do to mitigate your biases and help others to be less biased?


Some of the de-biasing techniques that seem to work are perspective-taking when we try to see things from the other person’s perspective. When doing so, you will lower the stereotype you may feel towards that particular category of people. Alternately you can try to play the devil’s advocate and argue why your thinking and view of the other person might be wrong. Instead of doing a simple diversity training focused on awareness, design your training and processes to focus more on data and reasoned judgment strategies like the perspective-taking or the devil’s advocate.

Treating others with respect

People don’t treat you as you deserve, but they often treat you as they see other people treating you. Researchers tested this on preschoolers. They let them watch an adult greeting two other adults. The first one with a smile, warmth, and happily sharing a toy. The second with a frown, using a cold tone of voice and reluctantly sharing a toy. Children were then asked which adult they liked more. 75% pointed to the person who was treated better by the adult. We assume that when someone is treated poorly, they are probably a bad person who deserves it. Therefore, we treat them poorly too.

This, of course, has huge implications for spreading bias. Parents’ behavior impacts their children profoundly. The unconscious bias shows in parents’ actions, and children pick it up. Then they adopt the same bias. The same applies to all of us. To fight bias, learn to treat others with respect, and set expectations in others around you about how they should treat that person.

Improving your skills

Curiously, you can find bias even by means that seemingly have nothing to do with it. Eberhardt talks about a study where participants were asked to guess the height and weight of young black and white men just from a photograph of their faces. The black men were consistently rated as taller, heavier, and stronger. In another situation, the participants were shown only bodies without faces of young men with racially ambiguous skin color. While looking at the same body, they rated it as taller and heavier if they believed it belonged to a black man. Prejudice and bias at play here.

It is challenging to eliminate a bias, yet you can get better, more balanced results even in the exercises like I just described. By training. If you get better at estimating height and weight, you limit the influence of bias in your estimates. The same applies to other aspects of life. If I tell you not to be biased during interviews, it won’t do much good. Even if I give you diversity training, you won’t improve much. You will see bias in others, but not in yourself. What works the best is for me to train you to be a better interviewer, give you the right tools, tell you what questions to ask, how to evaluate the answers, and set up the right processes. That way, I mitigate the impact of the biases you may hold.

Encouraging feedback to create an equal playing field

Researchers ran an interesting experiment with students who were given written assignments. When the teacher graded and critiqued the assignment, the researchers affixed two types of notes and handed them back to students. To some, it read, “I’m giving you these comments so you will have feedback on your paper.” To others, it read, “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations, and I know that you can reach them.” Guess what. Black students who received the second, more encouraging and reassuring notes were four times as likely to resubmit their essay than those who received the first note. The new essays were better, and they received better grades. It seems to be a trust issue. These students felt that they are being treated fairly, and they can trust the teacher. Not so surprisingly, white students didn’t need this type of reassurance. They implicitly expected to be treated fairly and saw the feedback as information on what to improve, rather than evidence of bias. Black students needed explicit reassurance, as they implicitly expected to be treated unfairly.

It is evident that the students’ performance wasn’t driven only by their abilities and skills but also by their expectations based on past experiences and unconscious bias. The implication for the workplace is to focus in inclusion. As I wrote in How To Build Inclusive Culture, you need to create an environment where everyone feels they belong and can trust you.

You can’t fix what you don’t measure

You can’t fix what you can’t see is broken. And in organizations, it means you can’t fix what you don’t measure. How do you know whether you have an inclusive recruitment process, whether you embrace diversity when promoting people, whether you are fair when rewarding your employees? How do you know that unconscious bias doesn’t mess up everything? You don’t. Unless you gather data. Only by understanding your company’s state can you improve processes and policies to be more equitable.

Do you require your employees to have a master’s degree from Ivy League university? Why? How do you know that a master’s degree correlates with better performance? How do you know that two years of practice doesn’t have the same impact? Doesn’t this requirement automatically eliminate a considerable number of applicants who would be great for the role? Doesn’t this requirement automatically give opportunities only to the privileged majority? Who knows. You don’t if you don’t measure these things.

Iris Bohnet in What Works gives an example from Google, a company obsessed with data. When Laszlo Bock, head of HR, looked at data, he quickly discovered that women were twice as likely to leave Google than men. Problem identified by measuring data. After introducing improved maternity and paternity plans, mothers were not more likely to leave Google than any other employee.

Putting it all together

Most of the bias in an organization doesn’t spur form bigotry, racism, or outgroup derogation. It is merely a convenience that is at fault. We prioritize what is comfortable, what is known, and therefore we favor those in our in-group.

The root cause is our unconscious mind. We misunderstand unconscious bias by saying that we fight inequality by not asking for data like gender, age, and race. We are hiding the problem. Unconscious bias works regardless of whether we are asking for data or not. By pretending this data doesn’t matter, we are pretending that there is no problem with discrimination. But the problem is there. Guaranteed. Only by getting the data we will discover the size of the problem. Only then can we fight unconscious bias with conscious actions.

What is your take on the topic? How do you fight bias in your organization? Do you even try? What are the benefits and the drawbacks? What major failures did you experience?


Follow me on Twitter: @GeekyLeader

Categories: Diversity

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