Overcoming bias in the workplace

Bias and stereotyping are prominent topics as the U.S. presidential primary candidates — on both sides — try to appeal to various constituencies, fueling divisiveness in an already politically polarized environment.

Many of us cringe at the bold comments encompassing gender, LGBT, race, age, religion, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and country of origin. But perhaps we should also regard the situation as an opportunity for each of us to assess our attitudes and beliefs toward others — particularly as inherent or unconscious biases affect our careers and the ability of our businesses to thrive.

How is bias defined?

Bias is “a particular tendency, trend, inclination, feeling or opinion, especially one that is preconceived or unreasoned, such as bias against older job applicants” according to Dictionary.com.

The Free Dictionary’s definition is “a preference or inclination especially one that inhibits impartial judgment; an unfair act or policy stemming from prejudice,” stated succinctly by Sir John Lubbock: “what we see depends mainly on what we look for.”

It is critical to recognize in ourselves that no matter how many laws are passed prohibiting discrimination, or how many diversity education programs are offered, we are all subject to continuing inclinations and feelings that separate ourselves from co-workers and potential employees — based on our family upbringing, cultural context, education and other factors.

According to the research

Fast Company’s 5 Minute Read “You’re More Biased than You Think” by Jane Porter (October 2014) advised that it is critical to address unconscious bias in our workplaces so that we hire, train, keep and promote the people that will make our businesses successful — including individuals who can offer a wide range of experiences, skill sets and potential for leadership.

Porter explained that unconscious or inherent bias is very evident in our workplaces by describing Victoria Brescoli’s 2012 study in which scientists were given two versions of the same resume to review: the only difference was the first name of the candidate. The male candidate was judged to be more experienced and talented, and therefore selected for the job by the majority of research subjects (also given a higher salary than the female candidates).

Moreover, another study by the Clayman Institute of Gender Studies at Stanford University, found that the number of female musicians in orchestras has increased from 5 percent to 25 percent since the 1970s — when candidates began auditioning for positions from behind screens.

Steps for improvement

So how do we overcome unconscious bias in the workplace? The first step is to acknowledge and recognize our biases — instead of pretending they don’t exist while nodding our heads in agreement during diversity training, then continuing to regard colleagues different from ourselves as “the other.”

The next step is to challenge our self to get out of our traditional comfort zones and strive for understanding, tolerance, acceptance and inclusiveness.

It is our responsibility as leaders to continuously improve our work and community environments, recognizing that the success of our companies depends upon the engagement, productivity and commitment of all of our employees (and the loyalty of our increasingly diverse customers).


Becky S. Cornett, member of WELD Impact Committee, and Barb Smoot, president and CEO, of Women for Economic and Leadership Development (WELD), which desires to increase the number of women in business and government leadership in Central Ohio.