June 20, 2022

Training Strategies to Help Defeat Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

Training Strategies to Help Defeat Unconscious Bias in the Workplace featured image

Employees are at their best when they feel welcomed, heard and accepted in the workplace. It’s no secret why this is the case — with no hostility to hold them back, workers are free to express their ideas and join a positive, motivational culture.

However, creating an inspirational, welcoming workplace takes some effort. This doesn’t mean employees intend to hurt or exclude their coworkers. In many cases, the factors causing friction between people are ingrained and unconscious.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s harmless or not worth addressing. Quite the opposite. Overcoming these issues can be critical to creating the kind of work environment that will sustain your company for years to come.

Training designed to address unconscious bias in the workplace should become a pivotal part of your business’s human resources strategy for both new hires and existing employees. When these courses land perfectly, you’ll serve your workers’ needs and let them thrive.

What is Unconscious Bias in the Workplace?

An unconscious bias is an unfounded assumption about a person, group or idea based on preconceptions a person doesn’t know they have. It’s not the same as an actively cultivated prejudice or explicit bias, but it still causes problems — employees may not give others a chance based on deeply rooted biases, while assuming they are being objective.

Unconscious bias can stem from a number of factors. Like more surface-level and intentional forms of discrimination and exclusion, nearly any trait can be the subject of implicit bias and prejudice. Catalyst, a global nonprofit for workplace equality, lists several types, including:

  • Ageism, assuming a person cannot do certain things because they’re too old or young. Catalyst adds this is often combined with implicit sexism and gender bias, harming women more often than men.
  • Name bias, in which an employee judges one of their coworkers based on assumptions about their background, all from their name. This can even stop someone from getting a job; hiring managers may deprioritize some resumes due to candidate names.
  • Affinity bias, a sort of catch-all in which people tend to gravitate toward others who share many traits with them. If left unchecked, this bias can make organizations homogenous with a lack of diverse experiences and opinions.
  • The contrast effect, which occurs when employees measure one person’s achievements only in relation to another’s. Comparing two people may prevent the assessor from recognizing true, original value. 

These and other forms of unconscious bias can easily influence an employee’s thinking, and may not register as prejudice. Taking an intentional, focused approach to bias prevention training may help counteract the effects of such assumptions, alongside more overt displays of bias against race, gender, sexual orientation and identity, religion or any other trait.

Forbes contributor Meghan M. Biro notes when identifying and countering unconscious bias, it’s often best to remind learners how unconscious assumptions are not always their fault. This framing softens the training’s message. After all, nobody likes being told they aren’t thinking critically, which may make it harder to let go of unconscious biases.

Reducing these prejudices makes employees feel welcome and encourages them to work more diligently. Biro points out morale, cooperation and individual effectiveness can all improve when a workforce isn’t held back by unfair assumptions.

How Does Bias Impact An Organization?

A toxic environment is detrimental to your profit and reputation. Good ideas may be ignored in meetings, viable candidates may be passed over for jobs, and competent workers may be denied promotions they’ve earned.

An unfair, inequitable culture can lead to unhappiness and disengagement, even when no one is intentionally biased. Unconscious bias might still harm morale and everything that depends on it.

AllBusiness’ Michele Ruiz, contributing to Forbes, specifies that organizations are literally losing employees because these workers don’t feel they’re being given the support they deserve. Women and nonwhite employees are departing from companies that don’t treat them equitably, leaving those businesses lacking in talent and skills.

Ruiz points to Harvard Business Review data on workplace bias, which found 9.2% of employees feel their workplaces do feature discrimination. The associated disengagement has a monetary cost: between $450 and $550 billion a year at all businesses.

Companies are already facing a talent drain broadly known as the Great Resignation. Employees are feeling empowered to leave situations that don’t suit them or meet their aspirations. In the face of this mass turnover, holding onto talented workers is a higher-priority item on corporate agendas than ever before – or at least it should be.

Just as organizations with high levels of conscious or unconscious bias and discriminatory behavior are at risk of demotivating or losing their employees, companies creating positive, supportive workplace cultures can capitalize on that talent, hiring the candidates who have left unsatisfactory situations.

Becoming a magnetic organization for dissatisfied employees, of course, means taking concrete steps to remove hidden bias from the workplace. That, in turn, depends on training and employee education efforts, as well as making acceptance a core value.

How to Create a Diversity-Friendly Workplace Culture

Diversity training should be a priority for today’s businesses, and it should be more than a simple obligation. According to Harvard Business Review, many companies’ unconscious bias training is too basic.

Organizations only taking a surface-level approach to counter bias are typically not tracking relevant diversity metrics in the workplace, so they can’t see the effects of their training. Furthermore, many employee education efforts don’t give advice on how to actively counter bias, simply introducing the concept and leaving it at that.

Businesses need a more direct approach to countering unconscious bias if businesses are truly committed to changing their workplace cultures for the better and becoming more welcoming to employees of all backgrounds. This does not mean treating training as a one-off event. Instead, businesses should track metrics over time and determine whether they are really embodying the values they espouse in employee education programs.

HBR adds a successful approach to countering unconscious bias may involve teaching employees that while it’s not unusual for people to have preconceptions, it’s possible to overcome them and change.

Rather than simply stating unconscious bias exists, these efforts illustrate alternative viewpoints and encourage workers to self-interrogate. Did they make a decision based on an assumption? What do they think the roots of their unconscious biases might be?

Organizations can also take direct action to make employees more empathetic to their coworkers’ experiences, and encourage them to interact beyond their own social groups. These two efforts are powerful together because actively communicating with people from different backgrounds is a great way to break down assumptions and prejudices.

Furthermore, HBR explains a long-term commitment to reducing bias should involve both strategic goals and progress tracking. Has the company truly become more equitable and moved toward its diversity and inclusion goals? Being clear-eyed about these issues is absolutely essential — an organization that can’t take a critical look at itself may naturally be unable to encourage more reflective attitudes in its employees.

Diversity Training for Modern Organizations

While a commitment to improving acceptance, building a diverse workforce and reducing bias involves long-term organizational strategy, the first steps include a commitment to straightforward employee education and awareness building. For today’s companies, that can include online video courses.

Training via digital coursework is an effective way to reach every member of your organization, even if you’ve embraced a hybrid or fully remote work style. Online training is also easy to assign to each new hire without scheduling a costly live-instructor session that requires in-person attendance. Accessible training is key – no one should be left out of implicit bias training.

If your organization is ready to start training employees on ingrained prejudices, you don’t need to settle for vague, amorphous materials. There are courses directly focusing on the concept of unconscious bias, setting up the problem and potential solutions. By taking these classes, employees can become more mindful of the unintentional bias and assumptions that may be shaping their attitudes and decisions every day.

In an era of high turnover, companies are divided into those losing employees and those attracting them. To push your company into the latter category, commit to a training program to strengthen your organizational values, especially related to diversity and acceptance. Overcoming unconscious bias is a positive calling card, one that can nudge your company ahead of the competition.

To learn more about curating a strong, evolving library of training content based on organizational values, bias reduction and acceptance, click here.

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