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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Initiative

Understanding and Combating Unconscious Bias

The Impact of Unconscious Bias on Diversity in the Workplace

4 min read
By Sean Jones
While many organizations actively seek to increase diversity in their workplace, black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), LGBTQIA+, and other groups are leaving their positions at alarming rates. At our recent TSW Conference, hiring a diverse workforce was top of mind for many speakers.

We need teams that mirror the diversity of our customers. - Neeracha Taychakoonavudh, EVP of Customer Success at Salesforce

While the indicators of this migration are numerous, one central problem inside many organizations appears to be internal unconscious bias.

What is Unconscious Bias?

Unconscious bias refers to assumptions and stereotypes about a certain group of people that are made without our known awareness. Oftentimes, these hidden biases cloud our judgement and influence our decision making, even if we’re not intentionally doing so. Keeping your workplace diverse requires hyper awareness of unconscious bias. With heightened awareness, you may begin a critical reflection of your organization. Ask yourself:
  • What do you think about when you think about diversity?
  • What areas of your business are impacted by unconscious bias?
  • Who receives unconscious bias training?
Over the past year, TSIA has launched a number of Rapid Research Response polls in conjunction with our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Initiative. Our latest poll sought to understand the impact unconscious bias has on diversity in the workplace.

The Effects of Unconscious Bias

So, what is so damaging about unconscious bias? Well, more than 81% of respondents feel promotions, hiring, and performance reviews are all negatively impacted by unconscious bias.
Rapid Response Poll Results mentioned in text above
Rapid Research Response Poll Results

If employees perceive their prospects at a company are worse because of their diversity, retaining or hiring them will prove exceedingly difficult. This could mean losing valuable team members in integral roles, or having trouble hiring members of diverse groups and backgrounds in the first place.

Unconscious bias manifests itself in many ways. For example, when asked what comes to mind when thinking about diversity, 88% of respondents immediately thought of race. Only 41% of respondents thought about people with disabilities and various sexual orientations.
Rapid Response Poll Results mentioned in text above
Rapid Research Response Poll Results

Although many organizations consider sexual orientation and people with disabilities as part of the spectrum of diversity, unconscious bias likely skews the range of their inclusion. The result could be that those in “less-seen” diversity groups opt not to work for your organization and instead take their talents elsewhere. Or, a current employee could feel underutilized or overlooked and leave.

Both of these survey results point to the same thing: unconscious bias affects the diversity of your organization. Even if you feel your organization doesn’t have a problem with unconscious bias but notice a lack of diversity, ask yourself: is there a perception of unconscious bias? Why is that?

Answering these questions, taking a hard look at your organization, and acknowledging the impact of unconscious bias are the first steps to combating its effects. But what should you do next?

Reducing Unconscious Bias

While unconscious bias can’t be completely eradicated, there are tangible steps your organization can take to significantly reduce its impact. Acknowledging its existence and looking internally is certainly step one, but what comes after? Here are six ways your organization can mitigate unconscious bias:
  1. Hire with diversity in mind.
    • One key takeaway from TSW’s seminar “Building a Diverse and Inclusive Talent Pipeline for Services Excellence” was the importance of forming a committee to shape the hiring process. The more voices you have in the room to craft interview questions and create job criteria, the more you can make the hiring process objective and data driven. Create job specs that reflect needs and not groups, and take time to audit the process and make sure the criteria itself is free from unintentional bias. For example, are you more focused on what someone studied in school or where someone studied? Is there undo value placed on unpaid internships in industry or are you willing to hire from outside traditional structures if a candidate can learn on the job? Hiring diversely means taking intentional steps to have the hiring process reflect that desire.
  2. Be transparent with your hiring and promotion processes.
    • Being open with hiring procedures and promotion criteria can go a long way to building trust with employees and candidates. Formalizing procedures and making them known will also help hiring managers and executives eliminate prejudice and keep unconscious bias at the forefront of their mind.
  3. Provide unconscious bias training.
    • To unlearn unconscious bias, it is important to implement unconscious bias training as standard practice. Unconscious bias training has been shown to increase retention of women, non-binary persons, and people of color. In other words, unconscious bias training keeps your organization diverse. This is not groundbreaking: the majority of organizations who responded to this poll (65%) are currently providing unconscious bias training. However, of those organizations who do provide unconscious bias training, only 55% offered the training to all employees. This brings us to the most overlooked and crucial strategy...
  4. Increase unconscious bias training.
    • Offering an occasional training isn’t enough, especially if that offer isn’t made available to all employees. Increasing the access to and frequency of unconscious bias training signals to employees its importance. It is also imperative to encourage attendance to these trainings more than once. Organizations that do not plan to increase training appear to feel more areas of business are negatively affected by unconscious bias than their counterparts.
      Rapid Response Poll Results mentioned in text above
      Rapid Research Response Poll Results
  5. Make diversity something that everyone owns.
    • Speaking on whose responsibility it is to encourage diversity, TSIA Executive Director and VP Thomas Lah used this analogy: “When safety became a big thing in manufacturing plants, people created safety departments. If everyone working on the frontline thought 'safety’s not my job,' [then] safety in the plant is usually not that great. But if they all feel like they own safety, safety improves. And I think it’s the same with diversity and inclusion. Everybody’s got to feel that that’s their responsibility, not somebody else’s...Diversity and inclusion are not the responsibility of HR. It’s really the responsibility of every frontline manager.” So while you need your top-of-funnel hiring team and directors to care about diversity, the company culture won’t change until it is a priority for everyone.
  6. Provide a safe feedback loop.
    • Allow room for employees to give feedback in the manner they’re comfortable with. Employees won’t speak up if they feel information might be used against them, so this might mean offering anonymous surveys or making known the correct channels to go through where information will remain confidential. Check in often and even consider asking questions about diversity to job candidates who elect not to take a position.  
Through a willingness to reflect on our own unconscious bias, training for all employees, and improving key metrics, we can limit the negative influence unconscious bias has on our organizations.
 

 November 18, 2021

Sean Jones

About Sean Jones

Sean Jones is a research analyst for TSIA and a member of the companies Analytics team, working to collect and analyze technology and services industry data for the benefit of TSIA members. He holds a Masters in Sociology from San Diego State University and focuses on mixed methods research. He is passionate about using qualitative and quantitative data to highlight and improve on contextual business challenges.

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