unconscious bias.png

13 Opportunities to Address Unconscious Biases in the Modern Workplace

By Maja Orsic on November 01, 2017

For better or worse, our unconscious biases bolster our emotional responses.

These biases “are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness,” writes UCSF’s Office of Diversity and Outreach.

Think of them as stereotypes you’ve accidentally internalized—automatic preferences that influence your opinions. Paradoxically, these unconscious biases can contradict viewpoints we believe ourselves to hold.

The Atlantic’s Jessica Nordell interviewed Patricia Devine, director of the University of Wisconsin’s Prejudice and Intergroup Relations Lab, who evaluates the pervasiveness of biases.

“There are a lot of people who are very sincere in their renunciation of prejudice,” Devine explains, “[y]et they are vulnerable to habits of mind. Intentions aren’t good enough.”

Because unconscious biases have the greatest influence over us when we’re stressed or under time constraints, two pressures you’re likely to experience at work, mitigating their impact on your coworkers and customers requires an active effort.

We've identified 13 areas where unconscious biases are likely having an effect on your workplace. Once you've determined where your biases are hiding, you can start challenging the status quo. 

1. Job postings

With highly transparent employer review and recruiting sites like Glassdoor and AngelList, prospective employees aren’t the only audience reading your job postings. As a form of external, public-facing communication, job descriptions should be written in your brand voice and optimized to appeal to the broadest pool of candidates.

Textio’s Tim Halloran speaks to the underlying unconscious bias that often informs word choice: “Gendered language isn’t always obvious or intuitive...There are plenty of seemingly random examples like exhaustive, enforcement, and fearless that are statistically proven to skew your talent pool (toward men in this case), and it’s highly unlikely you’re going to hear about those at your company’s unconscious bias training workshop.”

Textio is a predictive writing engine that looks for biased language in job descriptions. We use Textio to check our job descriptions for bias and cannot recommend the service enough. If you’re curious, check out Halloran’s full article for an in-depth, data-backed look at the impact of gendered language on the success of job descriptions and the rate at which roles are filled.

Takeaway

Audit the language in your job listings and revise if necessary to appeal to a more diverse, more qualified pool of applicants.

2. Company policies

Reactance bias is our unconscious tendency to react to rules and regulations by exercising our freedom.

Dr. Travis Bradberry, author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0, writes in Entrepreneur: “employees who feel mistreated or ‘Big Brothered’ by their employers are more likely to take longer breaks, extra sick days or even steal from their company.” When leaders design policies to limit unwanted behaviors instead of focusing on desired behaviors, they are sending a tacit message of distrust.

“Policies are a company’s message to its employees regarding how it values people,” writes workplace consultant Sue Bingham in “The High Price of Overly Prescriptive HR Policies,” which appeared in the Harvard Business Review in September. “Can you reframe punitive rules as positive goals to aim for?”

Consider what might make it hard for your employees to bring their whole selves to work.

Corporate dress codes have been challenged for prescribing appearances without valid business reasons. If employees feel restrained by your dress code, for reasons determined by their finances, religious beliefs, gender identities, or any other cause, then you are causing them more stress than you are alleviating. 

Restrictive sick leave and time off policies can be biased against individuals living with acute illness or mental illness, persons who are family planning, and employees who wish to protect their medical privacy. These policies can discourage your employees from taking care of themselves. With the unlimited vacation policies that are so popular in startups, you’d think more people would be taking breaks. But they’re not!

Takeaway

Prioritize your employees’ personal comfort when revising company policies.

3. Benefits

The benefits your company offers can attract potential employees and help retain current employees. Alternately, subpar benefits can deter prospective employees from applying or make them want to leave.

Companies ensure that their employees bring their best, strongest, healthiest selves to work by providing benefits like health insurance. But unconscious biases can prevent us from empathizing with others and understanding their unique needs, so when decision makers create benefits programs in a vacuum, without the input of their intended users, they’re bound to have weaknesses.

In recent years, a shift towards more inclusive parental leave policies has reflected changing dynamics in gender roles. Imagine your employee, Henry, and his husband are planning to adopt a baby. If your parental leave policy doesn’t accommodate male, female, and gender-nonconforming individuals who are welcoming someone new into their life, Henry might be hesitant to ask for time off and consider looking for work at a company with more equitable benefits.

Recent research from Glassdoor found that 40 percent of employees rank insurance (e.g., medical, dental) above all other benefits. As Fast Company writes, “more than half (57 percent) of people said benefits and perks are among their top considerations before accepting a job, and four in five workers say they would prefer new benefits over a pay raise.”

Takeaway

Your employees want to feel valued. Speak candidly with them about their health and wellness — insurance coverage, if your company provides it, might be less equitable than you think.

4. Marketing and communications

As a marketer, I’m regularly confronted by my own unconscious biases since they influence the words I choose, the visual assets I’m drawn to, and the problems I want to solve.

As your company grows and your user personas evolve, are you challenging yourself to change your understanding of their wants and needs, too?

As Valentina Zarya explains in Fortune, “[m]ost Americans tend to be biased in favor of the white, male, heterosexual majority—even when they themselves do not fall into that group, according to findings by Project Implicit, a Harvard University-run nonprofit focused on studying social cognition.”

Questioning status quo that is the commercial success of past marketing campaigns, Tom Knox, former president of the Institute of Practitioners of Advertising, notably said, “we need to find ways of actively demonstrating that better results, better creativity, better thinking, and better commercial success come from embracing diversity.”

Takeaway

Assess the visuals you share with the public on a regular basis and compare them to your audience. Are there discrepancies? Remember that small improvements, like replacing one picture, can have a significant impact.

5. Food and events

Unconscious biases can block us from intuiting the needs of the people around us and make us oblivious to what might usually be obvious.

Just because your employees can stay late at the office doesn’t mean evenings are the best time for work events. Alternatives to after-work events, like Learn-at-Lunch programs and company outings, are more inclusive of employees who have children, hold second jobs, are going to school, or are otherwise limited to work hours.

If company events always center around alcohol, you could be excluding employees who choose not to drink, whether for their religion, health, or lifestyle.

For catered lunches, make a concerted effort to accommodate your coworkers with dietary restrictions, whether they have food allergies, are vegan, keep kosher, or observe halal. Acknowledging and satisfying unique food requirements is an inclusive move that does not take much discretionary effort.

Takeaway

Making people comfortable at work isn’t a one-size-fits-all initiative. By putting extra thought into food and events, you can show your employees that you care about what makes them unique.

6. Environment

The bathroom bills that were proposed in North Carolina and Texas in 2016 have brought gender issues into public discussion.

Paradigm, a company that designs diversity and inclusion strategies and offers unconscious bias training, recently published the first in a series of blog posts on transgender inclusion that take a thoughtful approach to inclusive education and strategies.

Tash Wilder, PhD, consultant at Paradigm, addresses one particular unconscious bias directly:

“You should never assume that you can tell someone’s gender just by looking at them.”

If you don’t know how to start breaking down institutionalized bias, you can start with an essential goal to make sure that everyone can use the bathroom comfortably, no matter their circumstances.

Find a way to discuss individual needs for bathrooms with a lot of employees: what one person needs, someone else might find extraneous.

Private and accessible stalls, gender-neutral bathrooms, noise-canceling accommodations, clean and functioning equipment… What might seem like basic dignities are especially important at work, where individuals might feel uncomfortable asking for accommodations.

Anticipating users’ needs is part of good product design; apply the same approach to how you treat your employees.

Takeaway

Encourage your employees and coworkers to assess their work environments. With anonymous input from multiple sources, you’ll be empowered to identify the weaknesses in common assumptions about what people need.

7. Leadership

“It comes up time and time again; women don’t even consider an education in technology because they don’t have any role models or points of references, professional, social or otherwise. We just don’t see women in tech,” PWC’s Sheridan Ash told The Guardian.

Ash goes on to quote American activist Marian Wright Edelman when referencing the lack of women in leadership roles in technology: “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

In 2016, the Executive Leadership Council reports, “fewer than 15 percent of all board seats in the Fortune 500 were held by minorities.” While slight progress has been made in the past six years, Ronald C. Parker from the Alliance for Board Diversity points out that “[a] great deal of work remains for corporate board composition to keep pace with the changing demographics of the country at large.”

“This is where emotional intelligence and social intelligence come in,” says Richard Boyatzis, Distinguished University Professor, H.R. Horvitz Chair of Family Business, Professor in the Departments of Organizational Behavior, Psychology, and Cognitive Science, Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University.

“Leaders need some degree of emotional intelligence to rise above our need to justify or validate ourselves, which is what happens when we seek people who are just like us in their thinking. And we need a certain amount of social competency to be able to engage people who do have differences of ideas and perspectives.”

Antonesia “Toni” Wiley writes in Nonprofit Quarterly that we cannot have conversations without the people we are trying to help. The three questions that help Wiley directly face her unconscious biases are as follows:

Where are they?
Why aren’t they here?
Why are we having conversations without them?

Consider this: if your company’s leadership figures are primarily heteronormative white males, you have a great opportunity to bring fresh perspectives into your organization. Welcoming leaders who will add to your company culture can a have noticeable effect on employees at all levels.

Takeaway

Look internally. Are you supporting professional development for underrepresented minorities? Atlassian’s global head of diversity and inclusion, Aubrey Blanche, reports that peer support makes all the difference.

8. Location

Your location impacts your desirability as an employer. If the town or city you work in is culturally homogenous, you’ll have to work extra hard to attract a diverse workforce and show every candidate and every employee that they’re welcome.

Do you pay your employees competitively so that they can keep up with cost of living in your area without relying on savings they might not have?

On the flip side, street addresses as listed on a resume can unintentionally influence anyone in a hiring role. Whether applicants are applying from out of state, live just down the road, or are in an up-and-coming part of town, seeing an address on their application materials can impact your impression of their qualifications.

Takeaway

If your location makes it difficult for employees to stay with the company, it’s better to know now. Update your cost of living calculations regularly and consider adopting blind application processes so that you aren’t biased against applicants from far afield.

9. Holidays

Being aware of cultural biases and working to correct them has little to do with political correctness and a lot to do with making sure that everyone feels comfortable bringing their whole selves to work.

If your company already recognizes national holidays like Christmas, making accommodations for employees to take time off to celebrate other holidays throughout the year might seem excessive.

But acknowledging that your employees are different from you and might celebrate in different ways will open the door for them to be fully present at work when they are there and take time to rest and celebrate with their loved ones when it’s appropriate for them.

At Dribbble, employees observe both American and Canadian national holidays.

“Because most of our team is equally spread across Canada and the USA, we found that our Slack channels got awfully quiet during Canadian holidays that weren’t also observed in the United States, and vice versa,” writes Dribbbler Chloe Oddleifson. “We didn’t get a whole lot of work done without the majority of the team online, so now we have a ‘CanAmerican’ holiday schedule.”

Takeaway

You don’t have to do what’s always been done! Consider implementing a flexible holiday schedule or making your own version of Dribbble’s “CanAmerican” calendar.

10. Product

Diverse points of view make products better.

Modupe Akinnawonu, a product manager at The New York Times, puts it simply: “Without diverse perspectives and experiences in designing, building and testing, products can and will fail female and minority users.”

Akinnawonu continues: “Companies with a culturally diverse leadership team are more likely to develop new products.”

David Thomas, H. Naylor Fitzhugh Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, says: “The way I look at it is, if our customer base is diverse, we need diversity in our workforce so that we can learn from our own diversity to make ourselves more effective at meeting the needs of our clients.”

If the cost of change is intimidating, consider this insight from a 2015 McKinsey report: “companies in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians.”

If you’ve experienced success in the past by maintaining the status quo, you might think that what you’ve always done is good enough. After all, change is expensive. But the payoff can be significant.

Takeaway

When the diversity of your team reflects the diversity of the customers you serve, the better their experience with your product or service will be.

11. Accessibility

Look around your office. Can colleagues, clients, job candidates, or friends with limited mobility comfortably visit your workplace?

“A report published by the United Nations in 2011 estimated there were 1 [to] 1.3 billion people with disabilities in the world,” writes Ruby Zheng at the Interaction Design Foundation. “In fact, persons with disabilities are the largest minority in the world.”

Despite the fact that persons with disabilities compose such a significant portion of the population, facilities aren’t always designed to be accessible, especially in old and converted office spaces. There are a lot of changes, both large and small, that can make a meaningful impact on workplace accessibility.

Takeaway

To learn more about providing spaces that are inviting and comfortable for all people, take a look at SHRM’s comprehensive toolkit, “Developing an Accessible Workplace”.

12. Meetings

Akinnawonum, product manager at the The New York Times, observes biases in the standard meetings structure.

“Create spaces that guarantee everyone’s voice is heard by remembering that not everyone likes to speak up in meetings,” she suggests. “Set agendas ahead of time so everyone can contribute; create space in group meetings for individual brainstorming; and provide other channels for feedback.”

Asking what other people need and observing what makes them comfortable, especially if it’s different from what makes you comfortable, can help you make meetings and other business interactions more effective.

Takeaway

While extroverted employees might be comfortable speaking up in meetings, introverted employees might not. Support everyone’s ability to contribute by providing multiple avenues for communication.

13. Teams

If you’re looking for companies who are leading the way, Atlassian, the software forces behind Stride, is addressing its institutionalized biases team by team.

“We report on the diversity of our workforce at the team level,” Blanche explained to SiliconANGLE’s Rebecca Knight at the 2017 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.

Atlassian’s “team-level” approach is novel because it challenges common assumptions about diversity data and offers perspective on the gender-wage gap.

“It doesn’t matter if you have 30 percent women in your company if all the women are in HR or marketing and the men are in engineering. What matters is that each of those teams is diverse, because it helps them build better.”

Fortune recently named Atlassian one of the 50 Best Workplaces for diversity, giving back, and millennials.

Takeaway

Make a point of discussing your unconscious biases as a team. Building trust and encouraging honesty can help departments run more smoothly. When hiring, broaden your scope by looking for candidates who will be culture adds, not just culture fits.

Moving forward

Now that we’ve identified where our unconscious biases manifest in the workplace, we can start mitigating their impact. I’m confident that we can improve every workday by taking small steps in the right direction. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, which is totally understandable — there’s a lot of information here!  pick one of the 13 takeaways to help you get started.

If you want to keep learning about unconscious biases, I recommend watching these two Ted Talks, which I found to be very helpful while I was writing this piece:

Curious about the benefits of an inclusive company culture? Find out more by reading ”5 Competitive Benefits of Diversity in the Workplace”.

Written by Maja Orsic

Maja Orsic


Maja's background in writing, fine art photography, and visual design informs her hybrid approach to marketing. She is motivated to create welcoming digital spaces and make work better for everyone.