Overcoming implicit bias in the workplace

Alyson Claire Decker
Alyson Claire Decker | Oct 29, 2021

Guest writer Alyson Claire Decker—general counsel, Board member, and more—on the impact of implicit bias.

Time and time again it has been shown that companies that have more women, people of color, and other minority talent in executive roles perform better than companies that are less diverse.

And yet, less than 10% of Fortune 500 companies have a female CEO and less than 10% of Fortune 500 companies have a person of color at their helm.  Likewise, Boards of Directors have been so slow to organically diversify that both state governments and Nasdaq have been forced to step in and are starting to require board diversity for public companies to be headquartered in their states or to be listed on the stock exchange.  So why, despite the clear business, economic, and legal reasons to be more diverse, are companies still struggling to create equitable and inclusive workplaces?  Because, despite best efforts, affinities and implicit biases still impact how companies hire, develop, and promote talent.

Implicit biases are, in essence, mental shortcuts that allow one to quickly categorize other individuals based on ingrained cultural stereotypes and stigmas.  These biases often develop from both personal experiences and archetypes that are portrayed in popular media and promoted within the communities in which one has lived since youth.  And affinities naturally form as we meet people that are similar to us and we learn that it is easier to connect with people who come from comparable backgrounds or look or talk like us.  And unlike explicit biases that are apparent on the surface, implicit biases are often hidden and unknown to the people who carry them, only becoming apparent when their collective impact can no longer be denied.

So, how can you start to combat these unknown biases and affinities?  First, you can take a test to discover what biases and affinities you are most affected by, and the Harvard Implicit Association Test is a great place to start that journey.  Second, you can learn how to recognize these biases and affinities.  And third, you can learn how to take simple steps to minimize their impacts in the workplace.

Implicit Bias in the Workplace

Performance, attribution, likeability, and affinity are some of the most common examples of implicit bias that come into play at work.  But one should also be mindful of biases against parents or those with disabilities and how multiple intersectional biases may impact the lives and careers of individuals in marginalized groups.

  • Performance Bias occurs when a person’s innate characteristics, such as their gender, sexuality, or race, are conflated with their past, current, or expected future work performance.  For example, a manager might be a tougher critic of a female or minority employee’s work product or assume that the skills of a non-diverse candidate are at a higher level without any actual support.

  • Attribution Bias involves making judgments about someone’s ability based primarily on stereotypes.  Attribution bias can impact decisions to promote because it results in marginalized individuals being given less recognition for their accomplishments.  It can also result in false attribution, for example, when the credit for a team project goes solely to a non-diverse team member versus the other members of the team who may have equally contributed to the project’s success.

  • Likeability Bias impacts one’s assessment of a person’s soft skills.  For example, while the qualities of assertiveness and aggressiveness are typically desired in male leaders, so-called “Alphas”, the same is not true of women, who when demonstrating the same traits are often labeled as bossy or shrill.  However, women who are “too” likeable can be seen as weak pushovers, particularly in corporate and executive settings.  And women and minorities are often pressured to appear as both likeable and capable, devaluing their competency as somewhat of secondary importance to their ability to get along with others. 

  • Affinity Bias often tips the scales when it comes to intangible qualities such as “fit” or “culture.”  We want to socialize and work with people who remind us of ourselves. We choose “Mini-Me” successors with whom we share a common background or trait such as country of origin, education, gender, or sexual orientation. We believe that someone who is like us will be best able to follow in our footsteps because they are so similar to us.  But when this moves from inclusion to the exclusion of “others”, it becomes problematic as it can limit diversity and create monolithic company cultures that can stifle innovation.

  • Parental and Disability Biases involve the tendency to incorrectly assume that parents or disabled individuals are less driven to succeed, less focused on their careers, or less interested in their jobs because they are more focused on external issues. While parents and individuals with disabilities may need to be granted some reasonable accommodations to flourish in certain work settings, that does not mean that they are less dedicated or less talented workers, simply that they may face additional challenges.

  • Intersectional Bias refers to individuals who experience the cumulative impact of multiple biases because they are members of multiple marginalized groups.  Thus, the bias they experience is compounded and negatively impacts them more than an individual who may be a member of only one such group.  A good example of intersectional bias is how the gender pay gap disproportionately impacts women of color.

How to Address Implicit Bias

So what are some concrete steps that companies, executives, and managers can take to make workplaces more diverse, equitable, and inclusive? 

  • Everyone must be held accountable. This means not excusing inappropriate behavior or talk at any level or by anyone, including behind closed doors. 

  • Managers have to proactively ensure that work, team, and project assignments are being assigned fairly and equitably, including both the supporting “office housework” and the outward facing revenue generating projects. 

  • Individuals need to make conscious choices about who we invite to lunch, who we network with, and who we give referrals to so that we are not simply falling back on who we already know or feel comfortable with, but rather, being intentionally inclusive in our choices.

And companies, when creating diversity, equity, and inclusion (“DEI”) policies need to look beyond quotas, which could potentially violate anti-discrimination laws, and focus instead on making sure that implicit biases are not having a discriminatory impact on members of marginalized groups.  (It is always wise, when implementing new DEI policies, to work with a DEI professional and get input from your legal counsel to make sure that the policies you are implementing are going to be both effective and in compliance with the law.)  And the three key areas to focus on when developing and implementing new DEI strategies are at the attracting, retaining, and promoting stages of the employment lifecycle.

  • Attraction: Is your candidate pool as diverse and representative as the pool of potential jobseekers who would qualify for this position?  If not, why?  Are you posting openings in forums that only target one particular category of candidates?  Are you only highlighting benefits or perks that do not appeal to a wide range of people? Are you recruiting from schools or programs that lack diversity or primarily interviewing candidates who are already connected to current employees?  Is the description of your company coming across as a place that is not inclusive?  Fixing these problems are some of the easiest ways to diversify your candidate pool.

  • Retention: If certain departments or teams are consistently losing diverse talent, you need to find out why.  Is it a problem with a specific manager or a deeper company culture issue?  If it is a manager or team problem, you can hold DEI and implicit bias workshops and trainings to get things back on track.  You can also reward managers who have great retention records and make retention, in general, part of the manager review process.  If it is a company culture issue, then you need to look at how leadership is shaping the company’s values and start creating inclusive workplace events, such as town halls, where diverse employees can speak and be heard. 

  • Promotion: If, despite a diverse workforce, a company’s executive, management, and leadership teams remain largely non-diverse, you have to ask if there are reasons that diverse employees are not getting promoted.  Perhaps implicit bias is impacting work assignments, opportunities for growth, and promotion decisions.  The best way to fix this is to make the promotion process more objective and less focused on intangible qualifications like “fit” and encourage mentorship, sponsorship, and professional development between current leaders and rising diverse stars who may be left out of organic internal networking opportunities.

It is also important to integrate bias interrupters, which counteract and nullify implicit biases, into one’s day-to-day-work activities, such as using specific performance examples in reviews instead of generic praise or criticism.  Another trick is to separate personality from skills, so instead of looking at likeability or describing someone as nice, aggressive, or difficult, focus on their work product.  It is also important to look at current performance and not future potential because individuals frequently have a habit of inflating or deflating a person’s potential based on bias, whereas looking at current performance or past progress is a much more objective way to evaluate someone’s ability.

The task of creating a truly diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace can seem daunting at first, especially when confronting uncomfortable biases and affinities of which we may not even be aware.  However, change is possible when the leadership and management of a company commit to taking small individual actions towards diversity, including acknowledging potential biases, implementing strategies to reduce implicit bias, and intentionally engaging in equitable and inclusive practices at all levels within an organization.  DEI work can be hard, but it does not have to be impossible.

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Alyson Claire Decker
Alyson Claire Decker

Alyson Claire Decker is an experienced general counsel, litigator, mediator, board member, and executive... not to mention a little bit of an employment law guru. She also leads DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) workshops and trainings and uses her legal background to provide preventative holistic approaches to human capital.

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