5 ways to prevent unconscious bias from ruining your company culture

Diversity and inclusion initiatives have been top of mind for employers throughout 2020, as workplaces grapple with inequalities in the office and beyond. But while it’s important to address obvious instances of discrimination in the workplace, a more pervasive form of unconscious bias will require a rewiring of our natural brain function.

“The brain makes decisions based on previous experiences and those memories guide us in how we deal with current experiences,” says Howard Ross, an unconscious bias trainer at Udarta Consulting, a corporate D&I firm.

Read more: Why annual diversity training isn't enough to combat racism

When this bias is applied in workplace settings, it can have an impact on the culture of an organization, through hiring practices, promotions, pay structure and the well-being of employees, Ross says, noting that unconscious bias can intensify the sense of separation that people of color feel. “All of those factors are putting added stress on folks to behave with hesitancy or be self-protective,” he says.

Below, Ross shares his five tips for becoming more aware of our unconscious bias and addressing it in effective and long-term ways:

Recognize scenarios where unconscious bias presents itself
Let's say somebody comes in to do an interview. John comes in in the morning, and he seems nervous. Without even thinking about it, I say, “I know you're nervous. Take a breath. Let me ask the question again.” I give him a second chance and the interview goes great. Now, six hours later, Sarah comes in. I just had a busy day. I'm running into the interview, and I ask her the first question. She pauses, and I just sit there with my arms crossed. That creates a completely different track.

The next day you ask me, how did it go? And I say, “Well, John was great, and she was just OK.” I don’t attribute that to the way I interacted with them. This kind of thing happens all day, every day in dozens of different ways. We could go through almost every interaction between human beings in the workplace, whether it's interviewing, recruiting, making hiring decisions, staff assignments, the marketing of benefits — it’s the real nature of how we interact.
Be aware of how COVID isolation has amplified biases
Isolation causes stress and enhances fear, so our fear center brain takes over. Whenever the brain is there, we're more susceptible to bias because we become more vulnerable so we become more protective.

The other aspect is that we’re missing out on a lot of social interactions in the office. Before, we might have spent time after a meeting getting coffee with someone. But now that we’re in Zoom overload, we just want to get them done. So because we have less personal interaction, we're going to fall back on stereotypes.
While remote, rely on technology to provide training
We're finding ways to do the work in pretty effective ways using breakout groups or working with smaller groups. You can actually see people's faces online more than if you're in the room with them. Workplaces are also doing extended programs where, rather than having people sit for a day or two at time, you do a six-month program, where every month we get on for a few hours. We're actually finding that some people were saying that there's a certain safety where you can say whatever is there to say.
Make sure your training is effective — and follow up frequently
Some training is not very effective, and we have to acknowledge that that's true. For example, a training where you’re wagging a finger at people and saying, “You'll never know what it is to be a woman, or you'll never know what it is to be a Black, Indigenous and person of color,” that’s been shown to not be very effective. What does make a difference is when we help people understand how they're thinking and making decisions, to get them to really understand their decision-making, they will tend to make more egalitarian decisions.

But before you do that performance review, you should watch a little video clip, or fill out a questionnaire that reminds you of four or five things you could do to make sure that performance review is less likely to be biased.
Prepare for long-term effort and future successes
Most people see diversity as this thing to spend some time on, get it fixed and move on. That's a problem because we're dealing with a systemic issue that is deeply embedded in everything we do. This is something we’ve been a part of for hundreds of years, so we need to be able to look inward and say, “How can I shift my perspective to understand other people, and how can they shift their perspective to understand me?” That way, we can really get a deeper understanding of each other.