An Easy Way for HR People Leaders to Actively Combat Unconscious Bias

Take a second to visualize this scenario.

During the first two weeks of the school year, a 5-year-old kindergartner is reprimanded several times for aggressive behavior—hitting, yelling, and playing too roughly. To address these behavioral concerns, the kindergarten teacher invites the student’s parents to a parent-teacher conference. On the night of the parent-teacher conference, the teacher greets both parents at the classroom door.

With a clear picture in mind, answer these questions.

In your mental image,

  • Was the kindergarten teacher a man?
  • Was the aggressive 5-year-old a girl?
  • Were the parents a same-sex couple?

“It’s okay if one—or all—of yours answers is ‘no.’ Your brain creates images of what’s familiar; it’s less of a fan of what’s not familiar,” says Valerie Alexander, after coordinating a different visualization activity during her TEDx talk, How to Outsmart Your Own Unconscious Bias.

Since a male kindergarten teacher, an aggressive 5-year-old girl, and a same-sex couple aren’t stereotypical, these visualizations are less common to our brain. Examining our behavior, or in this case, examining what we visualize, is key to minimizing our unconscious 

What are Unconscious Biases?

As defined by the University of California, unconscious biases are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness.

In the scenario I shared above, the social stereotypes are:

  1. Kindergarten teachers are women.
  2. Aggressive children are boys.
  3. Parents are heterosexual couples.

When asked to visualize the scenario, our brain builds on what’s familiar or expected. When we recognize that our brain craves the familiar, we can take an active role in interrupting that craving.

“Your willingness to examine your own possible biases is an important step in understanding the roots of stereotypes and prejudice in our society.” —Teaching Tolerance.

People-First Organizations and Challenging Unconscious Bias

As the Co-founder of Sayge, I think about how unconscious bias plays out in the workplace—especially given the current conversation around diversity, equity, and inclusion. If People-First organizations want to attract and retain top talent, I believe leaders need to begin challenging their unconscious bias.

3 Step Approach To Challenging Unconscious Bias.

Acknowledge my own bias—and potential bias. I describe myself as an open-minded person, and I think I can be relatively objective, but I still have unconscious bias—it’s inescapable. Unconscious bias exists on a systemic level and in order to minimize it, I know I need to become more self-aware and acknowledge my own biases. To do this, I have to identify the factors that inform how I view the world. For instance, how do my past experiences inform how I participate in a meeting? Or, how do my identities influence how I make hiring decisions?

Test myself for hidden biases. After identifying my own biases, I think it’s important to actively challenge myself on those biases. I ask myself things like, “Is something I think or believe holding me back from seeing this person in a different way?” Similar to the visualization activity above, I like to seek out my hidden biases. Dr. Dionne Poulton, author of “It’s Not Always Racist, But Sometimes It Is,” recommends that we become curious with ourselves, asking questions like, “Who am I inviting into the conversation? Who am I avoiding?” and “Why do I have a weird vibe around that person?”

Actively counter my biases. Since unconscious bias is inherently, ahem… unconscious, I know I need to work against my brain’s tendencies by ultimately turning the unexpected into the expected. Alexander recommends that we visualize situations before they happen. For instance, if I was an HR People Leader conducting a candidate search, I would visualize each applicant who submitted a top-tier resume. After I have a mental picture in my mind of the applicant, I would intentionally change that mental image—adjusting elements of their identity. “Open yourself up to different mental possibilities,” suggests Alexander. We need to actively work to normalize what isn’t yet normal in our brains.

Challenging Unconscious Bias in HR

In a field that’s largely focused on “the right fit,” HR People Leaders are continuously making judgments about applicants and candidates. Sometimes these judgments are well-informed and accurate; other times, these judgments are stereotypical and inaccurate.

Through the nature of their work, HR People Leaders are almost always confronted with their own biases, conscious or not. Most people believe they can be objective, especially during a candidate search, but objectivity isn’t simple; Our brain has formed biases, or these shortcuts, because they’re easier. And our decisions are strongly influenced by these biases and what we expect to be true in the world.

When I acknowledge my biases, test myself for hidden biases, and actively challenge my unconscious biases, I’m better at my job. Similarly, when HR People Leaders can become conscious of their biases, biases that were previously unconscious, I truly believe they can contribute at a higher level.

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