Unconscious Bias: Everything You Need to Know

Unconscious bias is an inherent and unrecognized prejudice against or in favor of a thing, person, or group. Businesses can manage this type of bias and its impacts through unconscious bias training.

Sometimes called implicit bias, unconscious bias is typically unfair and based on stereotypes. Individuals and groups base their bias on one or more characteristics, including:

  • Ethnicity and race
  • Gender identity or expression
  • Sexual orientation
  • Age
  • Physical and mental abilities
  • Religious beliefs and practices
  • Weight and other markers of attractiveness (beauty bias)
  • Past accomplishments or achievements
  • Existing relationships
  • Hometown or current location
  • Socioeconomic status
  • Employment history or current role
  • Education
Image via:Flickr by Savannah River Site

People, social groups, or institutions can all show unconscious bias. Some studies suggest this type of prejudice is more common than conscious bias, or recognized prejudice. It is often at odds with the values that a person, group, or organization holds. Some examples of unconscious bias that may manifest in the workplace could include a belief that:

  • Male employees are more capable of performing physical jobs than female employees
  • Employees with Chinese heritage can speak Mandarin
  • A job applicant with the surname Ahmed is Middle Eastern
  • A job applicant from an affluent neighborhood will be a more successful employee from a poorer neighborhood

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What Is Unconscious Bias Training?

While unconscious bias is natural, it may have negative consequences if left unchecked. For example, someone’s unconscious bias may lead them to make decisions that discriminate against others. Unconscious bias training can combat this problem by helping people identify individual and societal prejudices and worldviews that they weren’t aware of. This training also aims to help people challenge these prejudices and become more accepting of others. Unconscious bias training is a relatively new educational concept developed in response to 20th-century civil rights and gender equality movements.

Unconscious bias training usually teaches participants:

  • What unconscious bias is and how it differs from conscious bias
  • How unconscious bias can impact a business’s culture and decision-making
  • What common biases are and how to recognize them
  • How unconscious bias relates to diversity, inclusion, and equity
  • How confirmation bias, affinity bias, and the halo effect can feed unconscious bias
  • What practices and strategies can counteract unconscious bias in the workplace, such as strategies for making more informed decisions
  • What people should do if they see, experience, or get accused of bias

Why Is Unconscious Bias Training Important?

Unconscious bias training can help your business recognize and manage prejudices employees and departments were not previously aware of. Benefits for organizations include:

  • Helping leaders make fairer decisions
  • Making the business more diverse, inclusive, and equitable
  • Creating a more accepting and supportive work environment
  • Increasing innovation through developing a more diverse and accepting workforce
  • Improving your company’s reputation
  • Reducing the risk of discrimination complaints or lawsuits

Unconscious Bias Training Program Best Practices

While unconscious bias programs are typically well-intentioned, they often fail to address real prejudice. Unconscious bias training programs are more likely to be effective if:

  • They are designed by people who understand discrimination. This sounds obvious, but all too often unconscious bias training programs are designed by corporate lawyers focused on protecting businesses from legal action. While this is an important byproduct of an effective unconscious bias program, it should not be the main goal. Unconscious bias programs developed by people with personal or professional experience with discrimination are more effective.
  • They contain elements proven to get results. Effective unconscious bias programs state clear goals and encourage participants to apply their knowledge and practice equitable behavior after the course ends. They also focus on systematic unconscious bias, rather than targeting individuals. Participants become champions for change instead of feeling guilty or defensive about their inherent biases. You can read more about the importance of focusing on systematic and structural issues in this article.
  • They are actionable. Teaching relevant definitions and concepts is important to give participants a baseline understanding of unconscious bias. However, successful programs go beyond theoretical information. They teach actionable information, with step-by-step advice for preventing, recognizing, and challenging unconscious bias.
  • They relate to the day-to-day business. Using concrete examples and hypothetical scenarios relevant to the business and its industry can help participants apply what they’ve learned to influence real change.
  • They are voluntary. Unconscious bias training is not mandatory in the United States. Often employers want to make their training compulsory because they feel this maximizes their return on investment. However, people who want to learn are more likely to get the most out of this training. People forced to participate against their will may distract others from their learning goals. This can undermine the effectiveness of the training program.
  • They engage leaders as well as employees in nonsupervisory roles. While unconscious bias training shouldn’t be mandatory, it is most effective when company leaders get involved. These people are responsible for making key decisions in the business that can dismantle inequalities and discrimination. They also lead by an example that others follow. If they become committed to overcoming unconscious bias, more employees in nonsupervisory roles will follow suit.
  • They are part of a larger diversity, equity, and inclusion strategy. Unconscious bias training isn’t effective in isolation. Making it part of a larger strategy designed to achieve the business’s diversity, equity, and inclusion goals gives employees opportunities to apply what they learn in their training and drive change in the business. Here is an article that further explains the importance of including unconscious bias training as part of a larger strategy.

Making Unconscious Bias Training More Effective

Simply running an unconscious bias training session and teaching employees about this concept won’t necessarily make them behave more equitably. After all, most people know the importance of making healthy dietary choices, yet struggle to resist their favorite sweet treats. Bridging the gap between awareness and action can be challenging. However, the following activities can make unconscious bias training more effective:

  • Invite people in your business to share their experiences and observations of inequity and bias. This may be done anonymously or in person, depending on how comfortable people in your business feel. Discuss potential solutions for addressing these problems.
  • Empower employees to be part of the solution. Ask them how they think the workplace’s structures and systems can be less biased and more equitable. Help them put their plans into action after training concludes. These plans might involve changes to the products and services you offer, communications and marketing materials, customer service and employee policies, events, and other aspects of operations. For example, moving from one-on-one job interviews to panel interviews could make a business’s hiring processes fairer.
  • Evaluate and improve your unconscious bias training. These follow-up measures make sure your training achieves its goals. Collect feedback from participants about their training experience and their suggestions for improving it. Monitor the parts of your business that some people felt needed improvement, such as more diverse representation in marketing materials, and see whether these change over time. Make modifications as required.

Provide unconscious bias training that gets results when you partner with Impactly. Our award-winning course writers and designers have built training programs that some of the country’s largest employers trust. Read more about us on our website, then request a demo to see how we can help your small business.

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