Overcoming Implicit Bias in the Workplace

Overcoming Implicit Bias in the Workplace

What is implicit bias?

Have you ever wondered why the demographics of CEOs and those in leadership positions remain largely homogenous regardless of a diverse workforce?  Or why certain physical attributes, such as being tall, are associated with leaders?  Unconscious associations, or implicit bias, may be part of the reason.

While many companies understand and take active measures to prevent explicit bias in the workplace, the danger of implicit bias often remains unaddressed.  Bias can be defined as prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair.  Implicit bias remains problematic, in part, because it is often difficult to observe.  Implicit bias stems from the attitudes and beliefs we hold about a person or group on subconscious level. Unlike explicit bias, implicit bias occurs subconsciously.  Thus, the decisions and actions resulting in bias may not even be known to the person who holds the bias.

Why should I care about implicit bias?

Before addressing suggestions to overcome bias, an examination of the reasons you should care about bias, beyond complying with antidiscrimination laws, is in order.  Research indicates gender disparity exists across many fields.  For example, as of 2016, fewer than 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs were women, women accounted for only 17% of the highest positions in the top 200 law firms, and only 19% of congressional representatives and 12% of state governors were women.[i]  Implicit bias hampers diversity, which often leads to increased productivity and profits.  Studies show the benefits of diversity include innovation, business growth, increased problem solving, higher earnings and returns on equity, and increased creativity.[ii]

How can I overcome implicit bias?

Since diversity benefits companies, employees, and clients, how can we best address implicit bias?  On an individual level, the elimination of implicit bias begins with simply identifying one’s biases.  One resource for identifying biases is Project Implicit, which offers online tests to evaluate biases based on 14 different criteria ranging from weight to race to sexuality.[iii]  The AAUW (American Association of University Women) offers the following strategies for individuals to overcome implicit bias: focus on concrete positive and negative factors rather than “gut” feelings, notice when your responses and decisions may have been caused by bias and stereotypes, think about people who positively defy expected stereotypes as examples, and make an effort to think about members of stereotyped groups as individuals.[iv]

What can my company do to address implicit bias?

On an institutional level, a few intentional practices can remove the opportunity for bias and assist in eliminating implicit bias.  One simple practice companies can implement is anonymous job screening of applicants.  Redacting information revealing a candidate’s name, address, and age, allows decision makers to evaluate the experience and skills candidates may bring to the job.  Optimally, anonymous screening will reduce implicit bias and result in employees with a broad range of interests, backgrounds, and perspectives.

With respect to current employees, implementing a structured evaluation process reduces implicit bias by allowing employees to be reviewed in the same way.  The Wall Street Journal reports implicit gender bias often manifests in performance reviews, with females being critiqued for coming on too strong and their accomplishments being attributed to team efforts, while males are commended for assertiveness, independence, and self-confidence.[v]  The Clayman Institute for Gender Research finds women are often held to a higher standard in evaluations, both by themselves and the evaluators regardless of the evaluator’s gender.[vi]  Using the same criteria to consistently evaluate employees is one tool to reduce the effects of implicit bias in performance reviews.  Additional measures to reduce implicit bias are to implement mentorship programs, examine parental leave policies, and formalize gender equality initiatives.

Ensuring diversity and inclusion in decision making, planning, and leadership is another way to reduce the effects of implicit bias.  Promoting diversity and inclusion in the workplace can be implemented by formal measures such as stating commitment to building a diverse and inclusive culture, banning “culture fit” as a reason to reject candidates, and offering workshops, as well as simple actions like checking the temperature in the office and pointing out interruptions in meetings.[vii]

Google, Facebook, and Coca-Cola are among many companies who now offer implicit bias training.  Other companies have developed innovative approaches to eliminate implicit bias such as creating small groups for employees to discuss issues arising in their daily work lives, offering easy access to employee relations personnel, or providing mentorship opportunities.

Does your company have a unique approach to addressing implicit bias?  Share your success stories with us.


[i] McGill, Alexis J.  “How Gender Roles, Implicit Bias and Stereotypes Affect Women and Girls.” Institute for New Economic Thinking 27 Oct. 2016.

[ii] Walter, Ekaterina.  “Reaping the Benefits of Diversity for Modern Business Innovation.”  Forbes 14, Jan. 2014.

[iii] Project Implicit’s tests can be accessed at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/selectatest.html.

[iv] Miller, Kevin.  “How to Fight Your Own Implicit Biases.”  AAUW Leadership 30 Mar. 2016.

[v] Silverman, Rachel E. “Gender Bias at Work Turns Up in Feedback.”  The Wall Street Journal 30 Sept. 2015.

[vi] Silverman, Rachel E. “Gender Bias at Work Turns Up in Feedback.”  The Wall Street Journal 30 Sept. 2015.

[vii] Kim, Jennifer.  “50+ Ideas for Cultivating Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace.”  Linked in Talent Blog 14 Mar. 2017.

Keep Reading