Don’t Undermine Your Utility’s Culture

Inadvertent biases in the workplace are inevitable, but you can minimize the damaging side effects.

Despite best intentions, everyone has biases. Even people who think they aren’t prejudiced and who honestly believe that discrimination is wrong still have unconscious biases that, when carried into the workplace, can lead to damaging results.

In the workplace, these unconscious biases are akin to heart disease — a silent phenomenon that does its damage invisibly until brought to light. It can foster poor decision-making in a variety of areas, ranging from resume reviews and job interviews to talent reviews for succession planning and identifying which employees gets bonuses and promotions. In short, they can inadvertently undermine an organization’s culture even as it diligently strives for more diversity, says Horace McCormick, the program director for executive development at the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School.

“Employee diversity is one of the biggest pain points for organizations,” McCormick says. “But if organizational leaders can’t move beyond the desire to hire people that remind them of themselves, they’re excluding their organizations from an already shrinking talent pool — there’s just not enough talent to go around.

“The other issue is that unconscious biases hamper organizations’ opportunities to grow their business through innovation,” he adds, noting that employees with diverse backgrounds bring with them unique and fresh perspectives and ideas. “The only way to do that in a systematic way, year after year, is to bring in creative and innovative people.

“And even if you become a diverse organization, you may not reap the benefits because of unconscious biases,” he adds. “Data tells us that highly diverse organizations are just as likely to over-perform as they are to underperform. The difference is leadership’s ability to manage differences — not be dismissive of good ideas because of unconscious biases that prompt them to favor ideas more like their own. It’s pointless to make good hires (to boost diversity) if you don’t have the systems and behaviors that make people happy to stay.”

A pervasive problem

These unconscious biases extend much further than the usual suspects, such as race, gender and age. For example, studies show that tall men are more likely to get promotions. Women with blond hair typically earn more than brunettes or redheads. The higher a woman’s body mass, the lower their income. Employees with “mature faces” enjoy more career advantages than those with “baby faces.” Even a person’s first and/or last name can influence hiring decisions, according to McCormick’s research.

As evidence, he cites studies where groups of people are asked to review resumes of prospective employees with “normal” last names. Then they’re asked to review another batch of resumes, which unbeknownst to them are the exact same resumes — only this time with ethnic-sounding names substituted for the normal names. The results? You guessed it: The resumes with the ethnic names are less likely to get selected for callbacks.

In fact, there are more than 150 identified unconscious biases, including some that cast a much, much wider shadow than stature, hair color or body mass. There is affinity bias, the tendency to like people who are similar to us; perception bias, in which certain stereotypes and assumptions about specific groups make it impossible to make impartial assessments about them; and confirmation bias, where people look for only information that confirms their beliefs and assumptions. Also consider the so-called “halo effect,” in which people tend to believe that everything about a particular person is great, just because they happen to like the person.

The good news is that, aside from outright bigots, racists and sexists, most people’s unconscious biases aren’t intentional. The culprit? Our brains, specifically the amygdala, which controls fear and threats; the left temporal lobe, the home of social stereotypes; and the frontal lobe, which is linked to forming impressions of others, empathy and reasoning.

In short, without getting too deep in the weeds, our brains are hardwired to group things together and try to make sense of things around us. The brain takes this barrage of impressions and categorizes them into easily sortable groups. Some of those groups are considered good. Others are considered bad. The result? Based on our experiences, we develop biases that help the brain quickly make decisions about threats — a survival mechanism that McCormick refers to as “fast-brain” thinking.

“Unconscious biases prevent us from seeing the world as it is,” McCormick explains. “Instead, we see the world as we are. Every rule we grew up with, what we learned about what success looks like, what good behavior looks like, what a great leader looks like … it all stems from our own life experiences.”

Surprising revelations

Most people are shocked when assessments reveal their unconscious biases. McCormick relates how he recently took the board of directors of a large organization through a series of exercises designed to display their inherent biases. “These were very seasoned and experienced people, and they were awestruck at what they learned, not only about how the brain works but at how it affects their individual and collective decision-making,” he says.

“Statistics tell us that when you have more powerful people in the room, the more likely you are to have biases at play,” he continues. “The higher the IQ, the more likely you are to be victimized by your own thinking. It’s almost a reflex to become more dependent on the fast-brain thinking when we’re the smartest people in the room. I’m not saying people do it by choice — they’re unaware of it when it happens. It’s the way the brain works, whether we choose to or not.”

So how can organizations eliminate unconscious biases? The bad news is they can’t. But the good news is they can minimize its insidious effects. Like with any problem, the first step is admitting that it actually exists. Then organizations should hire a professional facilitator that can explain not only the science behind it, but also lead exercises that reveal individuals’ unconscious biases, McCormick says. In addition, there are online tests that people can take to reveal their unconscious biases. (

“After you’re aware of your biases, you have more choices in terms of how you want or don’t want to behave,” McCormick notes. “You can ask yourself the tough questions about whether there are any biases in play with this group of new hires, this particular team or this person on my team.”

McCormick also suggests that leaders slow down their decision-making processes. Sometimes all it takes is a minute or two of reflection for a group of people to thoroughly consider whether there are any biases at play when it comes to hiring, say, a woman or a minority. “That’s much better than someone on a team saying no in three seconds … because their authority, power and self-confidence are kicking in their biases,” he says.

“I see quick decision-making as a big red flag regarding unconscious biases,” he adds. “That fast-brain thinking is what gets us in trouble. We need to slow down and not let those reflexes kick in. When you slow down your thinking, it allows you and your organization enough time to see if biases are influencing decisions that may not serve the organization’s best interests.”


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