Workplace

Biased? Not me! Or so we think: Tips to fight unconscious bias

Kansas City leadership coach Marilyn O’Hearne says it’s not enough to be aware of our automatic biases. We have to try to actively block our assumptions.
Kansas City leadership coach Marilyn O’Hearne says it’s not enough to be aware of our automatic biases. We have to try to actively block our assumptions.

Do you automatically think the thinner person is healthier than the heavier person? Do you assume the man has fewer home responsibilities than the woman? Are you leaning toward the prettier applicant than the plainer one?

Conscious or unconscious bias affects all of us. Sometimes, we can step back from a knee-jerk reaction and take other factors into consideration before we pass judgment. Other times, bias seeps into our decision-making.

Experts have spent countless hours testing and cataloging how people perceive race, ethnicity, gender, age, disabilities, religion, sexual orientation, weight and attractiveness. The raw fact is that social stereotypes affect hiring, promotion and co-worker affinities.

While some people may be overtly racist, or homophobic or sexist, most of us — we hope — try to follow the “don’t judge a book by its cover” adage.

But, says Kansas City leadership coach Marilyn O’Hearne, it’s not enough to be aware of our automatic biases. We have to try to actively block our assumptions.

Professional orchestra auditions held behind screens — to reduce documented bias for male candidates — are one kind of block. Removing names — which often indicate ethnicity — from resumes before hiring officials see them is another kind of block.

O’Hearne said a number of employers in England are excising the names of schools from applicants’ resumes. There, perhaps more than in the United States, where one went to school is a cultural identifier, she said.

“A lot of people say to me, ‘Wow, bias? Are we still talking about that?’ ” O’Hearne said. “But others say, ‘Wow, we really need to work on this.’ 

O’Hearne is doing that. She speaks on fighting bias around the country and has just written a new book, “Breaking Free from Bias: Preventing Costly Complaints, Conflict and Talent Loss.”

Aside from organizational upheaval, which few of us have the power to accomplish, there are little things anyone can do — things as simple as taking a few deep breaths before solidifying an immediate opinion of someone. That’s brain science, O’Hearne said, and it forces a flow from the “primitive brain” to the frontal lobe where more sophisticated decision-making occurs.

Is that going to make a world of difference? No. But, like snapping a rubber band on your wrist, it’s a cue to dig deeper when forming opinions.

It could help a manager consciously fight an “affinity bias” that projects mutual values or “like me” feelings when evaluating people for hire or promotion. It could prompt a younger co-worker to not assume an older worker won’t accept change. It might help a group of co-workers reach out to someone “different” to join them for a beer after work.

“It’s for the greater good,” O’Hearne believes. “Doing the right thing as an individual will have an effect on the organization. It will have an effect on the bottom line. What’s been done so far isn’t enough.”

Diane Stafford: 816-234-4359, @kcstarstafford

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