Some Things are Worth Repeating

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One of the most disappointing reactions to the recent US Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of gay marriage was the number of employers who immediately sought legal advice on how to get around it.

Bias by Mocks08, Flickr

Even when the collective consciousness of our society is raised by such a decision, many people still struggle to hold on to deeply held biases. Of course, if you’re one of those looking for ways around this new reality, you already know you have a bias (although you might not call it that!)

A conscious bias is generally based on a deeply held belief that a person is aware of and chooses to sustain. In most cases, people who hold such a bias consider their belief to be “truth,” regardless of any other versions of truth they may encounter or any evidence to the contrary. Since it’s very hard to change people’s beliefs, existing human rights and discrimination laws strive to protect individuals and groups from unfair treatment stemming from such beliefs and biases.

But sometimes bias is not obvious. Sometimes we don’t even know we’re being discriminatory because the bias exists below our own conscious awareness.  

When it comes to hiring, it’s not enough to implement equal opportunity policies and enforce existing anti-discrimination laws. Employers committed to providing fair and equal opportunity in an inclusive workplace must dig deeper and shine a light on any unconscious bias that might be impacting their hiring and management practices. 

As employers across the U.S. consider the implications of this most recent legal decision, it’s worth repeating the following excerpt from our earlier blog: Hiring Without Bias is Harder Than You Think


At each stage of the hiring process, a candidate (or a candidate’s resume) is subject to the filters and perceptions of those responsible for deciding who moves forward and who does not. Regardless of all efforts to be objective, everyone has internalized biases that affect their decisions.  

Is a Hoody the New Blazer?

Many technology companies, for example, pride themselves on being informal about office attire and offering a “no dress code” environment where jeans, T-shirts, hoodies and sneakers are commonplace. So what happens when a candidate shows up for an interview in a tailored suit and tie or a designer dress?

In truth, the “no dress code” rule in tech companies has spawned a new, unwritten dress code that can be just as arbitrary. Whether or not reactions are conscious or openly acknowledged, interviewers and current employees often experience an instinctive disconnect when a candidate over-dresses, assuming the candidate just doesn’t “get it” and wouldn’t fit in. In other words, while the tech culture likes to tell the world that attire doesn’t matter, it tends to reject those who choose to dress more formally. In discarding a traditional business attire bias, they’ve adopted a new, equally limiting, bias toward casual clothes.

Identifying Unconscious Bias

There are various methods you can use to prevent unconscious bias from scuppering efforts to diversify your workforce. One of the most effective involves helping your recruiters, hiring managers and other employees to recognize and overcome their unconscious biases.  This process is the core of transformative learning, which “looks at how adults can identify, assess and evaluate new information, and in some cases, reframe their world-view through the incorporation of new knowledge or information into their world-view or belief system”[1]

Research shows that “people can be consciously committed to egalitarianism, and deliberately work to behave without prejudice, yet still possess hidden negative prejudices or stereotypes.”[2] This means you’ll have to take a proactive approach to identifying and overcoming hidden bias in yourself and your team if cultivating an inclusive and diverse workforce is your goal,

Reducing Unconscious Bias

Here is one practical exercise in reducing the assumptions that feed unconscious bias.

Have your people describe the attire, demographics and other characteristics of the current employee mix. Once they have a good list, have them make note of and discuss the opposite of each characteristic and remind themselves that this too is OK. Referring back to the example above, if everyone in your work environment wears jeans, imagine the candidate who dresses differently (e.g. more formally, in ethnic garb, etc.), and acknowledge that this type of attire is also fine and does not tell us anything at all about a person’s abilities or character.

You might be surprised at the conversations that emerge as your people strive to “reframe their world-view.” 

Other actions you might consider:

  • Have everyone take one or more of Project Implicit’s Hidden Bias Tests and discuss the results. Be prepared for some controversy and reluctance as people struggle to come to terms with their own and each other’s hidden biases.
  • Offer diversity training workshops.
  • Provide training on critical thinking. People will be surprised to learn how personal filters affect incoming information and skew their understanding of the world around them.
  • Share resources and case studies that demonstrate the impact of unconscious bias.

The most important thing you can do is break the silence. No one likes to admit to being biased. Many people refuse to believe they are. Once it becomes an acceptable topic of conversation and everyone sees that unconscious bias is both common and changeable, it will be recognized as one more opportunity for personal and professional development. You will reap the dual benefits of growing your people and removing obstacles that impede your ability to diversify.


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Human Rights and Human Wrongs

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From an HR perspective, any discussion of human rights typically revolves around discrimination and the prevention of discriminatory practices in hiring, managing or disciplining workers. Specifics about what constitutes discrimination, and who is protected against it, vary from one jurisdiction to another. In some ways, the U.S. sets a high standard for protecting human rights in the workplace, and yet it’s evident that: Photo by Jenny Downing, Flickr “The concept of workers’ rights as human rights has only recently begun to influence the formation and implementation of labor policy in the United States. In the …

Assessing Organizational Culture

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Sometimes it’s hard to define the culture of an organization. People who work there often have difficulty articulating specifics and even leaders can find it challenging to identify the elements of a company’s culture; this in spite of the fact that their own beliefs and behaviors create it. Because, consciously or subconsciously, leaders create workplace culture.   Thomas Kell and Gregory T. Carrott[1] found “that employees who work for the same corporation, no matter what their jobs, are 30% more likely to exhibit similar leadership competencies—defined as the way a person learns, deduces, envisions, …

How to Harness Workplace Stress

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You’ve probably heard some version of this saying: “it’s not what happens in your life that determines your [mood, success, happiness, etc.], it’s how you react to what happens.” Turns out, this even applies to stress. According to an eight year study that tracked 30,000 adults in the U.S., those participants who experienced a lot of stress in their lives and believed stress was bad for their health had a 43% increased risk of death; but those who did not consider stress harmful had no increased risk of death, regardless of the amount …

Leadership is Hard to Define

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Public Domain, Wikimedia Whether discussing local politics, volunteer experiences or the recent behavior of the management team at work, leadership (or the lack if it) always becomes part of the conversational thread. It seems that everyone has an opinion about leadership: one message that comes through clearly— and sometimes loudly— is that not everyone is cut out to be (or wants to be) a leader. At the same time, most of us crave the sense of rightness, belonging and purpose that great leaders inspire. Collective experience also confirms that not all leaders are created equal. In analyzing the …

The Challenge of Nepotism

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Most employers consider employee referrals a good source of new hires. Having a personal connection with someone who already works in an organization often translates into easier onboarding and longer tenure. But how close is too close? Photo by Earl M, Flickr The Merriam-Wbster dictionary defines nepotism as “the unfair practice by a powerful person of giving jobs and other favors to relatives.” Ethics educators, Judy Nadler and Miriam Schulman, group favoritism, cronyism and nepotism together and describe them as follows:[1] Favoritism: Favoring a person not because he or she is doing the best job but rather because …

Food for Thought: What we eat affects our brain

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There is an increasing body of research illustrating the impact of food on the brain and our cognitive function. Children who come to school without breakfast have difficulty concentrating. Certain food additives have been shown to decrease a person’s ability to focus. Many of the best known studies focus on the impact of food choices on the teachability of young people. As a result, advocates like Jamie Oliver are adamant about changing children’s relationship to food by educating them about where it comes from, how to cook it and what it does to (and for) our …

Networking For (and With) Introverts

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On May 28/15, I attended Communitech’s Technology Leadership Conference (TLCWR) in Kitchener. The first keynote speaker (Susan Cain, author of Quiet), was an ironic choice for an audience made up primarily of reserved tech-types. She spoke about her book and her commitment to making the world, and in particular the workplace, more accepting of introverts. Photo by Joe Wolf, Flickr One of the most amusing parts of her presentation occurred when she asked this introvert-skewed audience to form impromptu groups of 4-5 people and share personal stories. The collective angst in the room was palpable—as was the …

Asking for Help: Succeeding Through Collaboration

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I’ve always tried to be self-sufficient. Occasionally, this need for independence runs away with me and I consider retreating to a cabin in the woods; off the grid in a self-sustaining bubble of blissful, unfettered freedom. When I come back down to Earth, I realize that the colleagues, friends and family I hold dear make this fantasy just that—fantastical. Unless, of course, I could convince ALL of them to join me in my escape! Photo by Max Wolfe, Wikimedia Commons At the root of this escapist whimsy is a personality trait that has shaped my entire …

Why People Lie

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Looking through a book of trivia the other day, I came across a list of “famous fibs.” Although I added a few from my own experience, I’m sure the list could be much longer. In Business About Speeding About Lost Homework Miscellaneous The check is in the mail. We service what we sell. Money is cheerfully refunded. This is a limited time offer! One size fits all. Your table will be ready in one minute. You must be mistaken. All calls are logged and we have no such record. I had to get to a restroom. …

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The Latest from Workplace Tribes
Some Things are Worth Repeating July 02, 2015
Human Rights and Human Wrongs June 30, 2015
Assessing Organizational Culture June 25, 2015
How to Harness Workplace Stress June 23, 2015
Leadership is Hard to Define June 18, 2015
The Challenge of Nepotism June 16, 2015
Food for Thought: What we eat affects our brain June 11, 2015
Networking For (and With) Introverts June 09, 2015
Asking for Help: Succeeding Through Collaboration June 04, 2015
Why People Lie June 02, 2015