Looking at the “Man in the Mirror”: Tackling Implicit Bias in the Workplace – What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You

What is “implicit” or “unconscious” bias?

Implicit bias is a preference, whether positive or negative, for a group based upon a stereotype or attitude we hold that operates outside of human awareness. It can be understood as a lens through which someone views the world that automatically filters how a person takes in and responds to information.[1] In society, we all have attitudes toward people, things, and situations that stem from implicit bias without our realizing a bias exists. Unchecked implicit bias within an organization can stifle growth, hinder recruitment, and ultimately negatively affect a company’s bottom line.

A 2020 survey conducted by scientists with New York University, University of Denver, and Harvard University interviewed men and women from 78 countries, as well as American boys and girls ages 9-10 to discover whether they had hidden biases.[2] The study revealed that men are more likely than women to be seen as “brilliant.”[3] Interestingly, however, these were automatic associations and contradicted what the study participants reported when asked directly how they felt.[4]

Implicit bias is often difficult to study. As the above study found, people are reluctant to admit that they have implicit bias or that they are prone to stereotyping. Therefore, the researchers used a test to indirectly measure stereotyping by using the Implicit Association Test (IAT).[5] This test is a well-known speed sorting tasks where participants are asked to quickly sort items into categories using the E or I keys on their keyboard.[6] For example, participants may be asked to press “E” if the word or photograph pictured was related to the category “male” or “brilliant.” Then, the categories would switch and participants would be asked to press “I” for words related to the category “female” or “brilliant.”[7]

The researchers explain the logic like this: if “brilliant” is more associated with “male” than with “female” in someone’s mind, they would be faster to sort those things together than if they were actively trying to sort “female” with “brilliant.”[8] This study is but one example of research that shows how our implicit biases are truly unconscious.

Implicit Bias Myths – Busted

The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity analyzed some of the most commonly believed myths about implicit bias and the results showed that perhaps there are even some biases or stereotypes about bias itself.[9] Some of the myths “busted” included:

Myth: Implicit bias is nothing more than beliefs people choose not to tell others. Reality: implicit biases are activated involuntarily and not something that someone can intentionally control.[10]

Myth: Having an implicit bias makes someone a “bad person.” Reality: implicit bias is a naturally occurring phenomenon in the brain. However, with knowledge, awareness, and proper tools, its effect can be mitigated.[11]

Myth: Someone who believes they are fully aware of their thoughts and actions and are well-informed about diversity and inclusion is not affected by implicit bias. Reality: implicit associations can more accurately predict behavior than explicit beliefs and thoughts.[12] Many people who believe that they are unbiased harbor implicit biases that may be surprising to them.

Myth: Racial minorities do not have bias against racial minorities. Similarly, women do not have implicit bias about other women. Reality: implicit biases affect everyone – even someone in the same category.[13]

Myth: If a bias is implicit, there is nothing that can be done about it because it is part of the subconscious. Reality: research has demonstrated that various intervention strategies can help mitigate the effects of unconscious bias.[14]

Where do we get our own implicit biases?

Implicit bias can be shaped at any age and can continue to be formed and reaffirmed throughout all stages of life. Our families, friends, peers, school, media (social media), experiences, positive/negative associations with interactions can all form both conscious and unconscious biases.

The people, places, and experiences that shape our lives do not always result in negative implicit biases. Favorable biases exist as well. For example, as a child someone may have had a babysitter with red hair and have happy memories about the babysitter. As an adult, the person may be more inclined to feel favorably about someone with red hair – whether in the workplace, socially, or in conducting business. This is not a negative implicit bias. Rather, this is a predisposition to feel favorably about a trait as a result of positive experiences in one’s life.

These experiences and interactions lead individuals to make immediate assessments when they see someone for the first time, right or wrong.

Examples/Types of Implicit Bias

While unconscious bias can be things like race, gender, disability, etc. – traits historically associated with discrimination – it can be comprised of other biases that permeate all classes, races, and cultures. For example, conformity bias is, in essence, the bias associated with peer pressure.[15] It is the bias of the boardroom: where the group’s opinion can affect how an individual responds in the group setting.[16] Some other instances of unconscious bias within the workplace include:

Weight bias (the judgment of someone else because they are lighter or heavier than others);

Affinity bias (the idea that people are drawn to those who are more similar to themselves);

Confirmation bias (when a person wants simply to confirm what they already believe); and,

Name bias (the prejudgments formed about other person based solely upon their name).[17]

It is these types of biases that result in companies being unable to recruit and retain strong and diverse talent. The Horn/Halo Effect is also an important bias to consider when evaluating employees, regardless of their length of tenure with an organization. The horn/halo effect occurs when an employee’s performance or character is generalized based on a single trait or event.[18] All organizations suffer from this bias when one employee is placed on a pedestal for winning a case, closing a deal, making a large sale, etc. while another is vilified for failing because they do not get along with a particular supervisor. This leads to the former employee coasting on the coattails of one success while the other employee flounders because of a single characterization of his/her relationship with a supervisor. These are the types of biases that can lead to toxic corporate culture and hinder retention of valuable employees.

How to Overcome Implicit Bias – a “de-biasing” toolkit

The best way to combat implicit bias in an organization is through awareness. While this may seem obvious, it is only when individuals are aware that they (and by extension their organization) have implicit bias that they can began to counteract the effects.

Eric Ellis, the president and CEO of Integrity Development Corp. in Cincinnati provided some helpful insight to the Society of Human Resource Management regarding how to mitigate the effects of unconscious bias in the workplace.[19] During the recruitment/hiring process, Ellis recommends that employers ensure that their referral processes are robust. Specifically, he suggests that employers start outside of the company and look for sources where diverse talent is likely to be found, like at career fairs, diverse student organizations at universities, and recipients of diverse scholarships.[20] He also recommends that diverse employees within an organization participate in the recruitment process so that there is accountability within all groups.[21] Maintaining consistency throughout the interview process is also a helpful tool. If applicants are asked the same questions that are generally related to the job for which the organization is recruiting, some (not all) implicit biases can be mitigated.[22]

However, an organization’s job is not done once a diverse candidate is through the door. Indeed, retention of diverse employees is equally – if not more – important. A company’s efforts are only as good as the end result, and a revolving door of diverse candidates leads to deterioration of a culture of inclusivity and has a negative effect on employee morale which can lead to a negative impact on an organization’s bottom line. Sponsorship is a key component of the tool kit to minimize organizational bias. Sponsorship is a “helping relationship in which senior, powerful people use their personal clout to talk up, advocate for, and place a more junior person in a key role.”[23] Sponsors are different from mentors in that mentors share knowledge, perspective, and experience, while sponsors wield their power on behalf of others.[24] The critical difference makes sponsorship a valuable tool for actively placing employees from underrepresented groups into positions, roles, assignments, etc. that will help both them and the organization succeed.[25]

Sponsorship only works, however, when senior management actually wants to spend their time advancing those in underrepresented groups. This works when a manager truly believes in the individual he or she is sponsoring to the point where the sponsor is willing to champion that person with conviction.[26] A senior member of management is going to be unlikely to support a sponsorship effort when the protégé has yet to prove him or herself within the company as someone with high-level talent and potential.[27] Therefore, it is important to recruit and, especially, to retain high level diverse talent from the beginning so that upper management feels confident in the person they choose to sponsor in the organization.

Ellis recommends the following tips to increase retention and ensure that an organization’s efforts continue past the hiring phase of employment:

Evaluate creative workplace flexibility options like remote work and flexible schedules;

Keep tabs on employees’ well-being and sense of belonging;

Create and maintain employee affinity networks or employee resources groups;

Share turnover data about diverse employees to understand why talent leaves an organization;

Be intentionally inclusive.[28]

Further Reading

The science behind unconscious bias is ever-evolving. Attached to this paper is an instructive and insightful article prepared by a member of this panel, Henry Deneen from the ALFA International firm Murphy & Grantland, P.A. in Columbia, S.C. Mr. Deneen is a leader in the field of emotional intelligence and, along with his daughter, established Blindspot Solutions, LLC to provide specialized emotional intelligence training and coaching for professionals. Mr. Deneen’s paper provides valuable insights into the amygdala – the part of the brain involved in processing of emotions such as fear, anger, and pleasure.[29] It is the amygdala that is responsible for how we perceive and then react to people and situations we encounter. Mr. Deneen’s paper discusses this at length and how we can mitigate the immediate “fight or flight” response resulting from the amygdala hijack. He also discusses blind spots and the importance of feedback from others within an organization in order to improve our responses. Blind spots and the science behind the amygdala hijack and how it affects the immediate, biological response are closely related to the science behind unconscious bias. It is important to understand both in order to identify a reaction/response when it happens and develop the necessary tools to respond in a way that minimizes/mitigates unconscious bias.

Take the test!

If you would like to measure your own implicit bias, the Implicit Association Test (IAT) found at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html is a great place to start. The test is a product of Project Implicit, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and collaborative of research focusing on implicit social cognition.[30] The project was founded in 1998 and by Dr. Tony Greenwald (University of Washington), Dr. Mahzarin Banaji (Harvard University) and Dr. Brian Nosek (University of Virginia). There are several tests available which may reveal certain biases and leanings in a number of different categories.

[1] Lauren N. Nile, Developing Diversity Training for the Workplace: A Guide for Trainers 5-17, NMCI Publications (9th ed. 2008), quoted in American Bar Association, Criminal Justice Section et al., Building Community Trust: Improving Cross-cultural Communication in the Criminal Justice System[hereinafter “Building Trust”], Unit 2, https://www.sbnm.org/Portals/NMBAR/docs/Committees/Diversity/ABABuildingCommunityTrust.pdf?ver=EWkfcsUGK0OfcceFWoq39w%3D%3D:(last visited October 3, 2021).

[2] New York University. (2020, July 2). Implicit bias against women: Men more likely than women to be seen as brilliant: New global study finds an unconscious stereotype linked to gender. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 3, 2021 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/07/200702100533.htm.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] The Kirwan Institute at Ohio State University, Mythbusters implicit bias edition: clearing up the confusion surrounding implicit bias. Retrieved October 3, 2021 from http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/implicit-bias-training/resources/mythbusters.pdf

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Leuangpaseuth, Austin. 10 Examples of Unconscious Bias In the Workplace and How to Avoid Them. May 11, 2021. Retrieved October 4, 2021 via https://www.easyllama.com/blog/unconscious-bias-in-the-workplace.


[17] Id.

[18] SpriggHR. Examples of Unconscious Bias and How to Reduce Their Impact. Retrieved October 4, 2021 via https://sprigghr.com/blog/hr-professionals/examples-of-unconscious-bias-and-how-to-reduce-their-impact/

[19] Kathy Gurciek, Try These Strategies to Reduce Implicit Bias in Your Workplace, April 22, 2020. Retrieved October 25, 2021 via https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/behavioral-competencies/global-and-cultural-effectiveness/pages/try-these-strategies-to-reduce-implicit-bias-in-your-workplace.aspx.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Herminia Ibarra, A Lack of Sponsorship Is Keeping Women from Advancing into Leadership, August 19, 2019. Retrieved October 27, 2021 via A Lack of Sponsorship Is Keeping Women from Advancing into Leadership (hbr.org).

[24] Herminia Ibarra and Nana von Bernuth, Want More Diverse Senior Leadership? Sponsor Junior Talent, October 9, 2020. Retrieved October 27, 2021 via https://hbr.org/2020/10/want-more-diverse-senior-leadership-sponsor-junior-talent.

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Daniel Goleman, The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights, (Florence, MA: More Than Sound, LLC, 2011, Kindle Edition), 282-283.

[30] See https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html.