Uncovering Unconscious Bias in Business
Finding ways to uncover and combat implicit biases is the only way to build a diverse, inclusive, and successful organization in today’s business world.
Evolution has left the human body with parts that no longer serve
it—like the appendix, embryonic tails, and tonsils. Some of these
features evolve out of existence over time; others are removed
with a minor surgery. Similarly, evolution has also left the human
brain with instincts that were necessary for survival for centuries but
are no longer useful and can often be harmful—like bias.
Quickly categorizing things, people, and situations was vital to early
humans. They relied on their ability to make near-instant decisions
about what was safe and unsafe—to distinguish the footstep of a
friend from a foe in the blink of an eye, faster than they could
logically respond. And today, we still have that instinct for knee-jerk
judgment. Our brains can only consciously process around 40 items per second
, but as many as 11 million unconsciously. To cope with
this overload of information, we sort through these millions of factors
using shortcuts our brains have developed over time. Additionally,
research has found that we’re more likely
to make biased decisions
when we make those decisions quickly—findings that have serious
implications for today’s rapidly evolving business world.
By unknowingly allowing our unconscious biases to influence our
fast-paced decision-making, we end up excluding certain groups,
perpetuating certain stereotypes, and relying on faulty reasoning
to make important choices. It’s only by committing to uncovering
and combating our unconscious biases, personally and in the
workplace, that we can interrupt these mental shortcuts and make
better, more equitable decisions.
“If You Have a Brain, You Have a Bias”
Implicit biases are different from explicit biases in that we know our
explicit biases exist, but our subconscious holds many biases that
we may not be aware of, spanning race, gender, appearance, age,
wealth, and much more. Implicit biases can be more damaging than
explicit biases because they often influence our decisions without
our knowledge. These insidious attitudes impact the workplace in
many ways: From job listings to performance reviews to
promotions, implicit bias pervades the decision-making process.
“If you have a brain, you have a bias. It’s human. Our brains are
hardwired to take shortcuts and bias is a form of helping us make
those shortcuts. Bias is a threat protector,” explains Michele Meyer-Shipp, Esq., principal and chief diversity and inclusion officer at
KPMG. “It’s real and we have to take steps to interrupt it.”
To interrupt and unlearn these biases, first we must acknowledge
they exist and can impact anyone. Defensiveness often creeps into
conversations about ageism, sexism, or racism, but many who don’t
consciously hold those views can still be influenced by them. When
it comes to unconscious bias, it’s important to lead the conversation
to a place that acknowledges that everyone has biases—implicit
and explicit—and it’s what we do about this fact that matters.
Diversity and inclusion expert Gregory Tall, MBA, leads workshops
and conferences to encourage this openness and communication.
“The hard part is no one ever wants to be called out—no
organization wants to be accused of being biased against anyone,”
he explains. “So, it starts with asking how we get everyone feeling
comfortable enough to engage in an uncomfortable conversation,
how we get them to the table, and how we get to the real action.”
Biases That Block the Door
Most experts agree that recruitment offers the most transparent
accounts of bias in the workplace, from the wording in job
descriptions to the filtering of resumes based on names. Tall saw
this a lot during his time in human resources. “A job posting
encouraging 'recent grads' to apply might be coded language
suggesting younger candidates are preferred. Bias tends to
operate covertly. One study
showed that job applicants with
traditionally White-sounding names were 50 percent more likely to
be contacted for an interview than applicants with traditionally
African-American-sounding names,” Tall adds.
Learning more about the types of biases helps identify and interrupt
them. A 2019 study
by Korn Ferry found the financial market has
the highest percentage of women in C-suite positions with 31
percent. When almost 70 percent of leadership in the financial
sector is made up of men, the affinity bias can explain why it’s
difficult for women to reach the C-suite in this sector and others:
Those who are in charge of these decisions are drawn to those
most similar to them.
Meyer-Shipp says that affinity bias is one of the most pervasive
forms of bias that she sees show up on a day-to-day basis. “It
shows up all of the time and it's not just the type of bias that
happens around race or gender,” she says. “For example, in a job
interview, you form these points of affinity, points that you find you
have in common with an interviewee, so that before you know it
you’re halfway through the interview and you’re like, wait a minute,
we haven’t even talked about the job.”
Besides affinity bias, research has uncovered many biases women
face in the workplace, making it more difficult for them to enter
organizations and ascend at the same rates as their male peers.
Joan Williams, JD, a 40-year veteran researcher and founding
director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California
Hastings College of the Law, has spent her career exploring the
interplay between work, class, and gender.
“Many claim that the wage gap between men and women stems
not from discrimination, but from the fact that men negotiate their
salaries whereas women don’t,” Williams writes in “Double Jeopardy? An Empirical Study With Implications for the Debates Over Implicit Bias and Intersectionality
,” published in 2014 in the
Harvard Journal of Law and Gender. “But a deeper look at the
‘women don’t ask’ literature reveals a study that finds that when
women do negotiate their starting salaries, they are seen as less likable and they are less likely to be hired. I suggest that the reason women do not ask is that they correctly sense that they will be penalized if they do.”
Williams calls this bias, where women are punished for behavior that men are rewarded for, “the Tightrope.” She also notes that women face a bias she calls “Prove-It-Again!” where women must show more evidence of competence than men to be seen as equally competent. Black women face the Prove-It-Again! bias to an even greater degree.
With such barriers to entry for women and other minorities, unconscious biases can effectively block the door at any organization. For a workplace hoping to overcome unconscious bias, identifying types of bias and being able to recognize their impact is a good way to start correcting course.
Uncovering Unconscious Bias
Addressing the systemic issues behind biases is not easy. Historical examples and research have shown that systems that hold minorities down do not disappear without deep, complex work and long-term commitment.
“A one-shot bias training is a good start, but it is not a solution. Systemic biases are built on unfair systems and cultures. You can’t change culture by doing something once, right? That’s not how cultural change works,” Williams says.
This is why Williams has developed the open source website biasinterrupters.org
, which offers free toolkits to help organizations evaluate their systems and implement small changes. “Bias interrupters” are tweaks to basic business practices, like hiring, performance evaluations, assignments, promotions, and compensation, that combat implicit bias in the workplace.
“If a business had a problem with sales, leaders would not just have these deep conversations about how much they care about sales, they would look at the evidence,” Williams says. “They would see where things are going wrong and why sales are falling off and try everything until they met their goals. Why don’t we do the same
with our bias problems?”
There are a multitude of evidence-based actions organizations that
are serious about overcoming implicit bias can take. In addition to
using the bias interrupter tools that Williams has built, or hosting the
kinds of workshops that Tall leads, many organizations are hiring
diversity and inclusion officers, like Meyer-Shipp. In 2019 alone,
diversity and inclusion roles
posted on Glassdoor rose 30 percent
over the previous year.
Having a diversity and inclusion officer is a great idea, but again, it
can’t end there. “If an organization is going to hire a diversity and
inclusion leader, they should ensure they’re giving that person both a
seat at the table where decisions are being made and power to make
real change, including the budget and the staff they need,” Meyer-
Shipp says. “Without those things the diversity and inclusion leader is
just sharing ideas that leadership may or may not put into place.”
Williams has seen this issue time and again in large organizations:
“If you hire a chief diversity officer and give that person no
ownership over the systems that create systemic bias, you should
not be surprised that that person does not achieve your goals. You
have structured that position to be unable to achieve the systemic
change that’s needed.”
Hope for a Bias-Free World
Biases in the workplace can have far-reaching effects. If employees
don’t feel accepted, valued, and understood, then productivity,
retention, and organizational culture suffer. This is supported by data:
A 2018 McKinsey report
on 366 public companies found that those
in the top quartile for ethnic and racial diversity in management were
35 percent more likely to have financial returns above the industry
mean, and those in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15
percent more likely to have returns above the industry mean.
Organizations that have successfully interrupted their biases also
enjoy other benefits that their competitors may not. Meyer-Shipp
shares that at a recent global Pride conference KPMG hosted,
LGBTQIA+ employees noted how far the business had come, with
some finding it hard to imagine even coming out in their workplace
not that long ago.
Besides the benefit of a happy team, Meyer-Shipp notes that a
diverse workforce can open doors to a diverse client base and
exciting new ideas, but after 40 years of studying these issues,
Williams is not convinced that making the business case makes
an impact: “People always find a reason why they’re different, why
it wouldn’t apply to their business. It comes down to fixing a
An Unbiased View
Williams writes in the Harvard Journal of Law and Gender,
“Disrupting these automatic associations—this implicit bias—may
well be very difficult. But the issue on the ground is not whether
automatic associations occur but whether, once made, the
stereotyping that results can be overridden. Stereotypes are
reversed all the time.”
Throughout history, different biases protected our ancestors from
a variety of predators and dangerous situations. As society has
matured, these biases no longer serve humanity. But because of
how deeply and precisely they’re rooted, they’re incredibly difficult
to dismantle. It is not hopeless, though. With many conscious steps
and conversations, organizations—and the CPA profession— can
continue the long climb to becoming truly diverse and inclusive.