Can unconscious bias be unlearned?

Written by
Stacie Graham

19 Sep 2016

19 Sep 2016 • by Stacie Graham

Unconscious bias, also known as implicit bias, is a disposition in judgment and behaviour that results from underlying stereotypes, attitudes and associations. These attitudes and beliefs have been informed by subtle cognitive processes that take place outside of our conscious awareness. The dispositions can move in both positive and negative directions.

Everyone carries unconscious bias

It is a fact that everyone carries unconscious bias with them. In some cases, awareness has been raised successfully over time in order to counter implicit negative associations. For example, people’s attitudes toward women in the workplace has changed drastically in a - historically speaking - small amount of time. 

Another example comes from Aldi, a discount grocery store, that announced this year that it will prohibit many pesticides and mostly carry organic products. For people who believe that quality organic food must be expensive, this announcement is a game changer.  

Raising awareness, while a very important first step, is not sufficient, especially when it comes to diversity - of all kinds - in the workplace. Therefore, HR professionals are called to action to play a leading role in creating processes that minimise the potential of unconscious bias leading to subtle forms of discrimination. 

Start with yourself

Reducing bias is a personal journey. You must first tap into the biases you hold. Using the online Implicit Association Test you can learn more about where your beliefs and associations on certain issues lie. Tools such as mindfulness practice and empathy-related techniques can be used to shift mindset.

Make inclusion a long-term investment

Gender and racial inequity are making headlines these days, and many companies are taking bold moves to eradicate them. Yet many may not realise that the inequity already begins in the hiring process and continues through to salary negotiations.

Similarly, when companies are forced to make cuts, “neutral” layoffs disproportionately negatively affect women, minorities, and individuals whose identities meet at those intersections. Therefore, it's essential that companies introduce measures, such as structured interviews and salary management systems that rely on both objective measures as well as an alignment with diversity policies, in order to reduce the probability of bias creeping in.

Embrace and reframe conflict

From the salary negotiation to the performance review, employees, HR professionals and leaders alike find themselves actively avoiding these sometimes challenging conversations, even when systems are in place to ease the discomfort.

I encourage you to embrace what feels like guaranteed conflict by reframing it. Such conversations offer an opportunity to learn and grow in your role, whatever it may be. As an employee you can ask questions and demand concrete answers in order to gain clarity around your targets and what is expected of you. As leaders you can better understand roles from your reports perspectives, which positively impacts your future target planning. And as HR professionals you can more accurately identify where there is room for improvement within processes.

Be proactive about inclusion efforts

Do not be satisfied with fulfilling requirements under the law. Subtle discrimination, which often has little or no legal recourse, negatively affects employee performance. Intentionally setting pro-diversity goals with the help of diversity trainings has been found to improve diversity-related attitudes and behaviours.