Implicit bias, sometimes referred to as unconscious bias, may occur when people make decisions based on an unknown, or unconscious, stereotype. It's believed that these biases are typically formed over a lifetime as our brains sort information into categories to help with processing. Implicit bias is different than explicit bias, since individuals acting with implicit bias are completely unaware of it. By contrast, people are generally aware of their explicit biases, even if they refrain from expressing those views openly.
A well-known study on the issue (Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of "Blind" Auditions on Female Musicians by Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse) was conducted among symphony orchestras in the United States, which had been predominately made up of men. The researchers found that after orchestras began holding blind auditions (where decisions were made based on what they heard rather than what they saw and heard), the proportion of women who made it to the later rounds and eventually were hired began to increase dramatically.
One theory for the findings is that since judges' prior experiences with symphony orchestras were primarily with male performers, the judges unconsciously associated "symphony orchestra musicians" with being male more than they did with being female, which affected their decisions prior to the blind auditions.
In the workplace, some studies claim that employers may unconsciously discriminate against applicants based on the name on their resume. For example, employers may unconsciously favor resumes with male names for manager positions, or favor applicants with familiar backgrounds for callbacks.
What does this mean for you?
For employers, biases may result in differential treatment based on one's sex, race, age, religion, disability, national origin or another protected characteristic. Biases may also result in poor employment decisions and negatively impact employee morale. Here are some general guidelines for addressing implicit (and explicit) bias:
- Understand any biases you may have. Try to examine any biases that could influence your decisions. Additionally, raise awareness among employees and supervisors so that they can help reduce instances of implicit bias.
- Create and use objective hiring criteria. Establish objective job-related criteria to use when making hiring decisions, such as years of experience, requisite skills, and educational background. Rely solely on these criteria when making employment decisions and keep documentation of the job-related reasons for all decisions.
- Use a wide variety of recruiting methods. Relying on one recruiting method, even if it's worked for you in the past, could limit the quality and diversity of your applicant pool. For example, exclusive reliance on employee referrals may create a barrier to equal employment opportunities for groups that are not already represented in your workforce.
- Hold "blind auditions" when possible. Look for ways to introduce elements of "blind auditions" into your hiring process. For example, you can make it a policy to remove names when giving resumes and applications to the person who decides whom to call in for interviews. This can help reduce both explicit and implicit discrimination, since you're unable to act on any biases because the individual's identity is completely unknown.
- Train supervisors. Provide supervisors with training on federal, state, and local nondiscrimination laws, company policies, and how to set and use objective criteria when making employment decisions. Additionally, train them on how to identify and respond to policy violations. Make clear that they should not take any adverse action against employees who make a complaint or participate in an investigation of alleged discrimination or harassment.
- Enforce policies consistently. If you are alerted to a potential policy violation, conduct a prompt, impartial, and thorough investigation. If you determine that an employee has violated a policy, take corrective action consistent with how you have handled similar situations in the past. Additionally, consider policies that help promote equality, such as flexible schedules and family leave programs.
- Review all decisions carefully. Make sure all decisions related to hiring, promotion, discipline, pay, and termination are reviewed by more than one individual, that they are based on legitimate business reasons, and that all employees are held to the same standards. Additionally, maintain transparency in the criteria your company uses for promotions, salary decisions, and performance reviews.
- Have a system for reporting potential discrimination. Provide multiple avenues (supervisors, human resources, other managers) for employees to report potential discrimination and take all complaints seriously.
Under federal, state, and local laws employers have a responsibility to provide equal employment opportunities to applicants and employees. Beyond the requirements of these laws, an equitable and diverse workplace can also lead to improved morale and lower turnover.