From intentions to action: Practical steps for mitigating unconscious bias in the workplace

mitigating unconscious-bias

According to 2021 data from Arctic Shores, one in four organisations considers unconscious bias as their number one recruitment challenge. But beyond unconscious bias training (we’ll get to that in a minute), what practical steps can organisations implement to make real progress on mitigating its impact and build a more inclusive workplace?

In this post, DEI consultant Daniela Herrera explains how unconscious bias impacts your workplace, and outlines some practical steps to identifying it and mitigating its impact on your workplace.

Understanding the impact of unconscious bias in the workplace

“Unconscious biases are part of how our brains work and part of how we make decisions throughout the day,” explains Daniela. “We also embed them in the way we work, the processes we create and follow, the relationships we keep or break, the systems we use and implement, and the technologies we create and use.

“For example, biases can interfere with our talent acquisition strategies, interviewing practices, hiring decisions, resource management practices, promotion, and salary raise cycles, learning and development programs implementations, and so much more.”

When unconscious bias runs unchecked through your organisation, you run the risk of building a homogeneous organisation that focuses on culture fit, not culture add, says Daniela. It can also prevent your DEI initiatives from getting off the ground.

“The tricky part of acknowledging, minimising, and addressing unconscious biases is that they start at the individual level but can easily become part of the larger company culture,” says Daniela. “They can hinder inclusion and equity initiatives and harm the overall sense of belonging. If unchecked at the systemic level, biases can become part of the company culture and negatively impact the overall sense of belonging and employee satisfaction.”

3 key actions to mitigate unconscious bias

It’s clear that organisations need to find ways to mitigate the impact of unconscious bias. But we’re here to tell you that the answer to unconscious bias isn’t unconscious bias training. At least — not on its own, and not unless presented in the context of a wider DEI strategy. This is because unconscious biases form over the course of our entire lifetimes, and one or two sessions won’t do much to undo the unconscious beliefs at the heart of the behaviour.

Unconscious bias training on its own doesn’t necessarily work unless we implement accountability measures to support those learnings — otherwise, our human brains go back to what they know and what they’ve been doing for years,” Daniela explains. “The most efficient way to minimise biases is to intentionally embed equity, inclusion, and accessibility into the processes and systems a company follows and review those new guidelines often.”

1. Use data to identify where your key issues are

Mitigating unconscious bias starts at the source. You have to identify the hidden processes and systems that are contributing to it.

“Identifying where the issue lies is the first step to intentionally embedding inclusive practices and accountability measures to prevent issues from happening again,” Daniela explains.

“For example, if a company identifies that they’re interviewing candidates from historically excluded communities, but those candidates are not being hired, the company might want to analyse the data they have to understand what the problem is.

“They might learn that candidates of colour are being interviewed differently, or that the feedback they receive is purely based on attitude and not skills, or that they’re extending lower offers to candidates from historically excluded groups compared to white candidates, or that one particular manager is simply not interviewing candidates of colour at all.”

Identifying which processes are contributing to bias means taking a look at your data across all of your employee lifecycle processes, including performance, compensation, hiring, and career paths, and looking for the gaps in your employee experience:

  • Are marginalised employees getting hired?
  • Are they being promoted in proportion to non-marginalised employees?
  • Are they being paid in proportion to non-marginalised employees?
  • How does retention of marginalised employees look compared with non-marginalised employees?

2. Deep dive into your recruitment process

Unconscious bias tends to occur when we meet someone for the first time. As such, a lot of initial unconscious bias tends to pop up during the hiring process. To combat it, Daniela suggests reviewing your end-to-end recruitment process to identify where bias is most likely to strike, and building in guardrails to minimise its risk.

This, says Daniela, takes some effort and intentionality — but there are a few simple tweaks organisations can implement to build more inclusive processes:

  • Use inclusive and plain language in job descriptions, company website, job application forms, and all internal and external communications with candidates and current employees.
  • Check that the company website, job application form, and all external communications are accessible for people with disabilities.
  • Structure the interview process in such a way that all candidates are asked the same questions and evaluated following the same criteria.
  • Pause the referral programme process, especially if the company already has severe representation issues or if referrals receive any special treatment during the interview process.
  • Review all interview feedback to identify any potential biased language and stereotyping.
  • Request that all interviewers submit their interview feedback right away to avoid biases and group thinking.

When it comes to the interview process, Daniela says training and accommodations are key to mitigating those first impressions biases that can creep in when interview panels first see a candidate in person or in a virtual call.

“Offering candidates the opportunity to blur their virtual background — or use a neutral background — [helps] minimise affinity bias,” she says. “[Organisations can also] share a detailed agenda of the interview process, interview questions, and next steps. “[It’s also important to] train hiring managers to fully understand and acknowledge their responsibility before, during, and after the interview process.”

3. Set goals to help mitigate unconscious biases in your processes

As organisations begin to define where unconscious bias is happening, it’s time to implement intentional changes and set goals that scale your efforts across the organisation.

Daniela suggests taking an outcome-focused approach here, and tying some of your efforts to strategic goals: “Organisations might want to restructure [their] interview processes, retrain managers and interviewers on how to conduct equitable and inclusive interviews, or even tie manager bonuses to their team’s diversity and inclusion performance. There’s no one-size-fits-all here. Every company needs to address where they are, what type of company they want to be, and what’s achievable and sustainable for them.”

However, when setting goals around unconscious bias at an organisational level, make sure you stay focused on the outcome you’re trying to reach. For example, setting goals around numbers, like attracting more diverse talent, won’t ultimately increase inclusion.

Setting a goal like getting 75% of hiring managers trained for interviews within a quarter or six month period is still quantifiable, but also keeps your efforts aligned to mitigating unconscious bias.
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Develop Diverse is an inclusive communication platform that helps organisations identify and solve the sources of unconscious bias in the language they use. With our research-backed platform, organisations can understand how their language choices impact different employee populations, learn from micro-nudges to change behaviour over time, and work towards building a more diverse, inclusive company. Book a demo to find out more.

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