Taming the Unconscious Beast
These 3 steps can help HR identify and eliminate implicit bias in the
What you don’t know about implicit bias can hurt you—and
your company. This form of prejudice,
which is also known as unconscious
bias, occurs when individuals make
judgments at least partially influenced
by gender, race or other prohibited
factors without realizing they have done
so, usually based on societal stereotypes
or their own personal experiences.
For example, if you hire someone
because you implicitly have a more favorable association with him or her, such as
when you are similar in age, you may be
unwittingly discriminating against those
who are different from you. That can
pose a very real legal risk.
The question is what to do about it.
How do you address something you don’t
even know might be happening?
Some employers are using assessments such as Harvard’s Implicit Association Test so that their leaders can better
understand their own biases. But there is
considerable debate about the validity of
these assessments, and, unfortunately, the
results could be used against an organization as evidence of bias in a lawsuit.
What can you do that is less problematic? Here are three salient recommendations to consider:
1. Train Without Admissions
Rather than asking leaders to take an
assessment, share with them data from
robust studies that demonstrate:
• The degree to which we might be
unconsciously perpetuating stereotypes.
• The existence of double standards that
are wrongly applied to individuals who do
not conform to our preconceived notions.
For example, people generally do
not associate women with executive
leadership. Moreover, when women do
act with authority, they are often called
abrasive or worse, while similar behavior
is lauded in their male counterparts. With
a little creativity, you can come up with
participatory exercises that raise aware-
ness of such double standards without
creating potential admissions of bias.
Once we become conscious of our
implicit biases, we are more likely to be
able to recognize and avoid them. But
how do we do that “in the moment” we’re
at risk of making biased choices?
2. Promote Self-Aware
Managers will not know if implicit bias
is at work in any given moment. After all,
this form of prejudice is, by definition,
unconscious. But if they are self-aware,
they should realize when they are experiencing certain feelings.
For example, if supervisors like or
dislike a job candidate right away, they
should make note of that. Knee-jerk reac-
tions serve as reminders to pause and
be more deliberate and less reflexive;
otherwise, the remainder of the inter-
view might tend to confirm the initial
Instead, managers should ask themselves why they are feeling as they do.
If they are not sure, they can reboot the
interview so that the ultimate decision is
Sometimes they will get an answer
once they think about it. For instance,
the older applicant immediately strikes a
manager as “rigid”—which he realizes on
reflection is a stereotype.
So now the question becomes “What
did the older individual do to warrant
that characterization?” If there are clear
behaviors, focus on those and keep an
open mind. Other times, however, it is
just a gut feel. And my gut tells me that
may result from implicit bias.
The same is true of evaluations.
By Jonathan A. Segal