The discourse about raising awareness and resolving implicit or unconscious bias came to prominence and garnered international attention in 2018 when Kevin Johnson, the CEO of Starbucks, was faced with the challenge of handling the fallout from the racial profiling of two African American men in a Philadelphia store.

Johnson’s swift action as a leader led to the restoring of confidence in the community. He also did everything he could to mitigate the hurt, damage and offence caused to those involved. His actions were immediate, he took personal and full responsibility, made an immediate apology and took follow-up actions. The closing of all stores in the United States and Canada for unconscious bias training with over 175,000 staff in May and June was unprecedented for any business.

His actions also gave me a platform to have a conversation about unconscious bias with the Nova Scotian public. Unconscious bias training had been part of my portfolio in Nova Scotia since 2015.

I was invited by CBC Radio to join with professor Frank Dobbin of Harvard University to discuss why diversity training doesn’t work.

This very question had been asked of me as a consultant on several occasions by businesses, institutions and hiring managers because they could not see the return on their investments in the area of diversity and inclusion.

So, what is unconscious bias and how can it be resolved in the workplace?

“Bias is ever-present, unavoidable, and human,” according to authors Mark Kaplan and Mason Donovan.

“Human beings are consistently, routinely, and profoundly biased and they occur without people knowing why they occur,” writes author Howard Ross.

In our workplace today, many employers are seeking simple answers to a very complex issue. Addressing unconscious bias cannot only be resolved by hosting a training session or lumping all diversity topics together and then tick the checkbox as being done.

“Bias starts from very early in our lives,” says author Amy C. Waninger. “In our infancy, in fact. Studies have shown that infants as young as six months old demonstrate preference for people of their own race. Even younger than that, babies show preferences for attractive faces over unattractive ones. Newborns almost immediately begin to associate certain sounds and smells with comfort or pain. This, as you might have guessed. Is only the beginning!”

As individuals, we are constantly making decisions that are influenced by unconscious biases. In fact, even when our biases seem conscious, they may be influenced by a pattern of unconscious assumptions that we have absorbed throughout our lives, says Ross.

The question is often asked, where do these biases come from?

According to social science research, having bias is important in our lives, it is how we navigate through life without having to evaluate everything afresh every time we experience it.

According to Ross, “These biases may come from social conditioning, belief systems that we have been taught or exposed to, particular incidents that we remember, or any number of assumed ‘truths’ that we have picked up along the way.”

Bias impacts how we respond to threats, how professionals interact with people needing their service, such as doctor-patient relationships, in organizations, how people get interviewed and the jobs they obtain. It also influences who gets promoted and how important decisions are made in our lives, most of which remains unconscious.

Often it is asked, “How do we get rid of unconscious bias?”

The answer is simple, bias is ever-present, unavoidable and human, say Kaplan and Donovan. “We are exposed to an incredible amount of information from multiple sources. Our conscious brain simply cannot make sense of all the information in a way that would allow us to function in our busy and complicated world. So, our brain uses shortcuts.” The shortcuts are not necessarily bad. Our brains are hardwired to sort, store and make quick decisions for us.

In our workplace, leaders are constantly making judgments and decisions and frequently have to rely on gut instincts to address complicated issues. Kaplan and Donovan argue that we don’t just make assumptions and judgments, but we act on them in ways that impact people, processes and organizations. They influence the decisions that leaders make, leading to inaccurate ratings of merit.

There are certain kinds of biases that result in non-inclusive behaviour such as:

Priming: Organizations are social systems and studies have shown that when a trusted colleague thinks highly of another colleague or a potential hire, the individuals are more likely to be similar.

Affinity bias: Most of us relate easily to people who share similar backgrounds or experiences.

Confirmation bias/stereotyping: Stereotypes are everywhere in diverse societies and they are stored in our unconscious brain. If we encounter someone that fits the stereotype, it tends to confirm and strengthen that stereotype.

These biases influence the decisions that leaders make on a daily basis. They create expectations and these expectations have a direct impact on people’s performance in the organization. These biases can also impact on the performance of some groups, particularly those that already have negative stereotypes associated with them.

Can we eliminate or solve unconscious bias in the workplace?

Researchers have long argued that power and privilege play a significant role in addressing unconscious bias in the workplace.

Ross states that “power and privilege are all around us, and yet we understand more than ever how unconscious we are to the ways they affect our lives, and both in our own self- perception and in the way, we behave towards others.”

These are expressed and demonstrated every day in our institutions, places of work and communities. This form of behaviour is even expressed in non-dominant groups.

Studies have identified that the key to effectively addressing unconscious bias must be designed to address the spectrum of diversity in our workplaces, including race, cultural diversity, abilities, women, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and two-spirited people. The spectrum is ever-changing and it is the responsibility of leaders in organizations to be intentional about their role in addressing diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace.

Professors Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev, in their 2018 discussion “why doesn’t diversity training work,” offered a number of interesting insights about what organizations can do. Their study suggested that change in unconscious bias does not lead to change in discrimination. Discrimination may result from habits of mind and behaviour, or organizational practices, that are not rooted in unconscious bias alone. This reinforces the view that employers cannot expect training to change the workplace without making other changes. It has to be a part of a wider cultural shift in the mindset of leaders, decisionmakers and every member in the organization at all levels.

This starts with individuals becoming aware of their own biases and how their behaviour impacts people around them.

Dobbins and Kalev’s research showed that the best measures for addressing unconscious bias are those that engage decisionmakers in solving the problem themselves.

They found that recruitment programs to identify minorities, women and other diverse persons were best achieved when corporate managers were deliberate in their pursuit of new talents.

Establishing peer mentorship initiatives with people a couple of rungs below in different departments gave managers the opportunity to meet people from diverse cultures and a chance to engage with those who they otherwise would not meet.

We need to regularly challenge organizational patterns; challenge group think and invite others to bring their differing perspectives to the table.

Watch for how work is allocated, supported and encouraged. Constantly check your preference or your “go-to person.” Watch for who gets the sweet projects and those who are talented but never get asked to assist. Could this be a bias on your part?

There are various initiatives that organizations can offer to mitigate unconscious bias but organizations must first recognize negative behaviours.

Waninger found in her 2018 study, as well as my extensive experience of working in diverse organizations, that there are microaggressions, the subtleties, language and communications, jokes and behaviours that are long-held as “normal” in the workplace but have contributed to emotional pain for many individuals.

For example, telling a black person that they are so articulate; asking an immigrant person where they are really, really from (and in my case, not accepting that I came to Canada from the UK); using derogatory language to describe a person with an intellectual disability, such as crazy or spastic; making assumptions that youth are not committed; being demeaning to an older worker.

In conclusion, it is not easy to resolve unconscious bias in the workplace. We need to recognize that we are all biased, and that it is very much a part of our DNA. In order to accomplish any level of change, it would take individuals time to have a level of self-awareness, intentionality, and shift in mindsets to accomplish any form of resolution. It would mean doing things differently and consciously engage with those who are not in your social or in-group.

In order for everyone to be productive and thrive in the workplace, leaders need to engage with all levels of staff in the organization because everyone is contributing to the prosperity of the business, economy and province.



Anne Divine

Anne Divine

Ann Divine, founder and CEO of Ashanti Leadership and Professional Development Services. Her consultancy provides extensive services in Leadership Development, Cultural and Organizational Change Management through Diversity and Inclusion lens.