Conquering Bias

Unconscious Bias

Five steps managers can implement to address unconscious bias in the workplace.

By Charlotte Blank

Business managers have become more aware of the potential for workplace bias following the Starbucks incident back in April which prompted Starbucks to close 8,000 of their stores to address an underlying bias issue. This then caused other companies to reevaluate how they solve major bias issues in their own workplaces. A common approach many firms take is called diversity training—programs devoted to increasing diversity and reducing bias through employee education. These initiatives are generally well-intentioned, and in high profile cases such as Starbucks, can serve to raise awareness for very important issues. There’s only one problem with them: They don’t work.

When it comes to influencing how people act toward one another in the workplace, behavioral science gives us a general rule of thumb: information doesn’t change behavior. When restaurants post calorie labels on their menus, people eat even more. Despite the annual $800 million spent on financial literacy programs, people are no better at saving. And sadly, when firms “teach diversity” through corporate education programs, people show no change in attitude, let alone in action. The cognitive biases people’s unconscious brains use to make automatic decisions and judgements on their behalf are just too deeply ingrained.

Instead, humans are much more influenced by their environment, including the programs and policies they use to guide and implement their workplace decisions. To cultivate a culture that embraces diversity, companies shouldn’t bother appealing to reason or attempting to change implicit bias. Instead, they should focus on de-biasing the system.

With that in mind, here are five behaviorally informed solutions managers can implement to address workplace bias:

  1. Remove identifying information. Hiring managers need to check their own biases at the front door with behaviorally informed hiring policies. Organizations can learn from orchestras who use blind auditions to eliminate gender bias. By shifting auditions from the open stage to behind a curtain, the orchestra world welcomed a dramatic increase in female musicians, from less than 5 percent in 1970, to over 40 percent today. Before reviewing resumes, managers can try removing the names on them by using tools like Applied or GapJumpers.
  1. Reduce gut decisions. When it comes to hiring decisions, structure is crucial. To reduce bias in evaluating candidates, managers can start by identifying necessary skills and an objective evaluation scale for each. Immediately after each candidate interview, prospective employees should be rated on each of those skills. When it’s time to make a decision, hiring managers can compare the candidates “horizontally”—one trait at a time, down the list—and make their decision based on an objective overall score. Another way to reduce gut feel bias is to give the candidates a sample work task to complete as a test. Free-flowing chats are useless for evaluation and unfairly favor memorable story-teller candidates over those most likely to succeed.
  1. Mind the self-promoters. Performance evaluations are a notorious platform for bias. For example, women are 1.4 times more likely to receive critical subjective feedback than men. If hiring managers incorporate self-evaluation feedback in their evaluation of employee performance, it is important to remember that order matters. Thanks to the anchoring effect, people tend to skew their personal evaluation of something in the direction of the first value they hear. When they hear an employee’s rating of themselves before they make their own decision, they can’t help but skew their review accordingly. One big problem with this is that men are more likely to overrate their own performance than women, so anchoring on self-reviews can create an unfair evaluation ground. The lesson: HR professionals should ask for employee self-reviews after they write down their own—and check their subjective evaluation against more objective measures. Research suggests that conducting more frequent and objective feedback reviews may also help dramatically.
  1. Establish diverse role models. One of the biggest barriers toward a thriving diverse community is stereotype threat, an unconscious tendency people have to fulfill the prophecy of stereotypes held against them. Combat stereotype threat by showcasing aspirational individuals of diverse identities. Encourage a diverse range of leaders to speak at company events, and make sure that commemorative hallway portraits are broadly representative. One study found that women who were shown a picture of Hillary Clinton or Angela Merkel before giving a public speech performed better than those who were shown a photo of Bill Clinton or no photo at all. Seeing is believing.
  1. Lead like a scientist. Don’t just do it—test it! Any new policy or program change should be carefully designed and measured to know whether it had the intended effect. HR leaders should identify up front exactly what outcome they intend to influence with the new program, how they plan to measure it, and where that metric stands now. Then pilot the concept in a random sample of offices, measure the results, and decide whether and how to implement across the whole organization. Even data-driven organizations like MIT are finding that in addressing workplace bias, as in all things, measurement is the first step toward progress. The university doubled their number of female faculty in STEM disciplines in 12 years, following a more focused analysis of gender bias. Best of all, companies should share their journey to diversity with the world by publishing their findings.

Business leaders are waking up to the pervasive problem of bias in the workplace. Behavioral science shows us that the greatest levers for change are already in their hands. Companies can use behavioral insights and their own company data to transform their workplace for a more inclusive and thriving future.


Charlotte Blank is chief behavioral officer of Maritz, which helps firms move people through motivation, events, and experiences. Blank forges the connection between academic behavioral theory and applied solution practice, and Incentive Magazine named her a visionary among 2016’s 25 Most Influential People in the Incentive Industry. Blank is a frequent contributor to PeopleScience.com.

Posted June 22, 2018 in Engaged Workforce

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