Employers Must Understand the Power and Danger of Implicit Bias

There’s been a lot in the news lately about what’s called “implicit bias.” Implicit bias is the unconscious attitudes and stereotypes that live in our minds, beyond our awareness. They go to our deepest feelings and snap judgments about what’s “good” and “bad.” The bottom line: none of us are truly neutral. And in the workplace, that can have serious consequences.

Uncovering implicit bias is an important step to reducing racism and sexism. While in some instances there is still, sadly, blatant discrimination, most workplace discrimination is subtle, built on a series of small judgments and perceptions, making it difficult to point to any one event that disadvantages an individual. And yet implicit bias interactions build up. Some people call this “accidental discrimination,” and it goes beyond race and gender, extending to age, social class, disability, appearance, accent, education level and even body type.

According to Professor John A. Powell of the University of California at Berkeley, only 2% of our emotional cognition is conscious; the remainder lives in our unconscious networks, where implicit racial and other biases reside. Smart employers are including training on implicit bias in their overall workforce training to combat this. Examples of online training include the implicit-association test, a series of rapidly presented photos in which the test taker is asked to categorize items as good or bad, revealing patterns in their beliefs and associations. According to Powell, teaching mindfulness and empathy is an important first step to getting us out of these implicit bias traps.

Some of the training modules are quite good and can provoke embarrassment when implicit bias is uncovered. The goal here, however, is not to shame anyone, but to show that implicit bias exists in all of us. The good news is that certain proactive steps can help individuals ameliorate it, which improves workplace relations and evens the playing field for all employees. Done right, such training leads to better adaptability, better customer service, greater levels of innovation and better recruitment and retention—key values for all employers.