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Some Things are Worth Repeating

One of the most disappointing reactions to the recent US Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of gay marriage was the number of employers who immediately sought legal advice on how to get around it.

Bias by Mocks08, Flickr

Even when the collective consciousness of our society is raised by such a decision, many people still struggle to hold on to deeply held biases. Of course, if you’re one of those looking for ways around this new reality, you already know you have a bias (although you might not call it that!)

A conscious bias is generally based on a deeply held belief that a person is aware of and chooses to sustain. In most cases, people who hold such a bias consider their belief to be “truth,” regardless of any other versions of truth they may encounter or any evidence to the contrary. Since it’s very hard to change people’s beliefs, existing human rights and discrimination laws strive to protect individuals and groups from unfair treatment stemming from such beliefs and biases.

But sometimes bias is not obvious. Sometimes we don’t even know we’re being discriminatory because the bias exists below our own conscious awareness.

When it comes to hiring, it’s not enough to implement equal opportunity policies and enforce existing anti-discrimination laws. Employers committed to providing fair and equal opportunity in an inclusive workplace must dig deeper and shine a light on any unconscious bias that might be impacting their hiring and management practices.

As employers across the U.S. consider the implications of this most recent legal decision, it’s worth repeating the following excerpt from our earlier blog: Hiring Without Bias is Harder Than You Think


At each stage of the hiring process, a candidate (or a candidate’s resume) is subject to the filters and perceptions of those responsible for deciding who moves forward and who does not. Regardless of all efforts to be objective, everyone has internalized biases that affect their decisions.

Is a Hoody the New Blazer?

Many technology companies, for example, pride themselves on being informal about office attire and offering a “no dress code” environment where jeans, T-shirts, hoodies and sneakers are commonplace. So what happens when a candidate shows up for an interview in a tailored suit and tie or a designer dress?

In truth, the “no dress code” rule in tech companies has spawned a new, unwritten dress code that can be just as arbitrary. Whether or not reactions are conscious or openly acknowledged, interviewers and current employees often experience an instinctive disconnect when a candidate over-dresses, assuming the candidate just doesn’t “get it” and wouldn’t fit in. In other words, while the tech culture likes to tell the world that attire doesn’t matter, it tends to reject those who choose to dress more formally. In discarding a traditional business attire bias, they’ve adopted a new, equally limiting, bias toward casual clothes.

Identifying Unconscious Bias

There are various methods you can use to prevent unconscious bias from scuppering efforts to diversify your workforce. One of the most effective involves helping your recruiters, hiring managers and other employees to recognize and overcome their unconscious biases.  This process is the core of transformative learning, which “looks at how adults can identify, assess and evaluate new information, and in some cases, reframe their world-view through the incorporation of new knowledge or information into their world-view or belief system”[1]

Research shows that “people can be consciously committed to egalitarianism, and deliberately work to behave without prejudice, yet still possess hidden negative prejudices or stereotypes.”[2] This means you’ll have to take a proactive approach to identifying and overcoming hidden bias in yourself and your team if cultivating an inclusive and diverse workforce is your goal,

Reducing Unconscious Bias

Here is one practical exercise in reducing the assumptions that feed unconscious bias.

Have your people describe the attire, demographics and other characteristics of the current employee mix. Once they have a good list, have them make note of and discuss the opposite of each characteristic and remind themselves that this too is OK. Referring back to the example above, if everyone in your work environment wears jeans, imagine the candidate who dresses differently (e.g. more formally, in ethnic garb, etc.), and acknowledge that this type of attire is also fine and does not tell us anything at all about a person’s abilities or character.

You might be surprised at the conversations that emerge as your people strive to “reframe their world-view.”

Other actions you might consider:

  • Have everyone take one or more of Project Implicit’s Hidden Bias Tests and discuss the results. Be prepared for some controversy and reluctance as people struggle to come to terms with their own and each other’s hidden biases.
  • Offer diversity training workshops.
  • Provide training on critical thinking. People will be surprised to learn how personal filters affect incoming information and skew their understanding of the world around them.
  • Share resources and case studies that demonstrate the impact of unconscious bias.

The most important thing you can do is break the silence. No one likes to admit to being biased. Many people refuse to believe they are. Once it becomes an acceptable topic of conversation and everyone sees that unconscious bias is both common and changeable, it will be recognized as one more opportunity for personal and professional development. You will reap the dual benefits of growing your people and removing obstacles that impede your ability to diversify.


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