Tuesday, 16 February 2016 20:21

Learn to illuminate and eliminate implicit bias in your organization

Written by Laura Hlavacek Rabideau


Michelle looks at me across my desk, tearful eyes revealing hurt and anger. I wrestle with my own confusion. How can I help her navigate a difficult situation when I’m not sure I can even see her perspective? Clearly I don’t understand all she is telling me, all she is feeling. What am I missing?

Michelle is a young African-American woman and consultant, and she’s struggling with her manager, a white man in his mid-fifties. And, at this moment, I’m her HR generalist, a thirty-something white woman, busy untangling what feels like a miscommunication.

Michelle described a client meeting when her manager relegated her to taking notes. Michelle, offended, felt he only asked her because she is the sole black woman on the team. I listened, but I thought that this couldn’t be accurate. Her manager was, I knew, a respected team leader. Regardless, their relationship was troubled, so I sought his perspective. He defended himself, “She is the junior member of the team. When I was the junior member, I took notes too. It has nothing to do with race or gender.” This explanation seemed reasonable to me. It must be a simple miscommunication, easily remedied.

I share this conclusion with Michelle, certain that this will resolve the conflict. But Michelle deflates and grows more frustrated. “Laura, I’m telling you. It is based on race. I know it. I feel it. You wouldn’t understand.” Frustrated myself, I realize I am missing something. There is something here I’ve failed to see, failed to understand. Worse yet, I’ve failed to help because of it.

As Human Resource professionals, we often joke about how our jobs would be easier if we didn’t have to deal with people. But I’ve always felt we secretly love the complexity, especially when we are helping make a difference despite the messiness. At that moment, though, I didn’t feel like I was helping Michelle at all. I was missing something.

Perhaps this situation feels familiar to your own; that sense that there’s something about another person that you can’t grasp. This is largely a function of implicit bias, or our tendency to act on our subconscious assumptions. I didn’t realize at the time that this was a factor at all, but now it’s clear to me that the implicit bias impacts are pervasive and its potential effects are profound.

Implicit biases shape our view of the world and influence how we engage with others in all areas of our lives, including how we engage as HR professionals. This is what I was missing in my interaction with Michelle. Until I could learn to reflect upon my perspective and see around corners in new ways, I was always going to miss something in conversations like the one and I’d therefore be missing something in the effort to build a truly inclusive work environment.

I have a passion for this profession. I love the challenge of helping people bring their whole self to work and coaching managers to become inspiring leaders. HR professionals have worked hard to build our business acumen, develop deep expertise, and become trusted advisors. We have a seat at the table and I couldn’t be more thrilled about that. Our responsibility is to leverage our access and influence the culture of inclusivity for the organizations we serve. But first, we must understand the real impact of implicit bias and how it impedes our best efforts to be inclusive.

We can define bias as, “a preference for one thing over another.” The tricky part is not when we talk about a preference, say, for strawberry ice cream over rocky road. The tricky part comes when bias refers to an unfair preference or prejudice. Perhaps the word “bias” feels uncomfortable in this context and this term, paired with, implicit may make it all the more painful to consider. “Implicit,” after all, means we have feelings and attitudes beneath our awareness that aren’t always identified through self-reflection. Implicit bias helps explain how our brains process mountains of data every second, and why we notice certain things and overlook others. Bias is simply a preference for one thing over another, and it shapes our experiences and beliefs, and drives our decision-making. It is necessary for survival, helping us to quickly assess threat or opportunity, to distinguish friend from potential foe.

What if we acknowledge that bias exists and has persistent effects? What if we look in the mirror and consider how it impacts us as HR professionals? If there were a way to become aware of these unconscious preferences, we could short-circuit the effect that our implicit bias has on our thinking and decisions. This is not easy simply because everyone has their own unique experience in the world. However as we explore the influence of implicit bias upon our work, there are a few key characteristics to keep in mind, according to the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity.

• Implicit biases are pervasive. Everyone possesses them, even people with avowed commitments to impartiality such as judges.

• Implicit and explicit biases are related but distinct mental constructs. They are not mutually exclusive and may even reinforce each other.

• The implicit associations we hold do not necessarily align with our declared beliefs or even reflect stances we would explicitly endorse.

• We generally tend to hold implicit biases that favor our own in-group, though research has shown that we can still hold implicit biases against our in-group.

• Implicit biases are malleable. Our brains are incredibly complex, and the implicit associations that we have formed can be gradually unlearned through a variety of de biasing techniques.

Are you wondering if you have any implicit bias? You do…and so do I. In fact, all of us share this trait. Over twenty years of data from the Implicit Association Test (IAT) confirms that implicit bias is just part of being human. The IAT uses evaluations or stereotypes by measuring the attitudes and beliefs that people may not be willing, or able to self-report by testing the strength of associations between concepts such as young or old, gay or straight, and black or white.

By having experiences outside my in-group, I started developing cross cultural competency, a more agile mindset, and the ability to better put myself in someone else’s shoes.

For example, my test results show that I associate men with better math skills than women. I would tell you that I sincerely believe men and women are equally capable of math. Yet somehow, beneath my awareness and ability to control, I have a bias that men are better at math. Given my IAT results, I uncomfortably acknowledge that I might, without my awareness, show preference to men for finance jobs. As an HR professional dedicated to creating an inclusive and fair workplace, I have an obligation to try and overcome thought patterns like these.

Still not certain? Harvard’s Project Implicit provides multiple versions of the IAT online and it has been taken by millions of people. Take the test yourself at: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html.

How’d you do? Remember, the good news is that implicit bias is malleable, meaning we can take action to diminish its impact.

Reflect and explore

The first step is introspection. Reflect on your feelings about inequity and seek opportunities to align your conscious, explicit values with your implicit attitudes. Ask yourself some hard questions about what influences your decisions about people and try to notice patterns. Are there similarities in people you hire? Who do you automatically seek out for key projects? Be suspicious of your automatic responses, but remember that you have the ability to change them. Seek experiences that can shift the patterns of experience in new directions.

Shortly after my interaction with Michelle and her manager, I had several opportunities to put myself in the unfamiliar territory of being the only person like me in a room. On one occasion, I attended a conference on workplace LGBT issues and people spoke candidly about the stress of deciding whether to mention their same-sex partner when a straight colleague asks, “did you have a good weekend?” I learned that I could easily cause this discomfort, even if unintentionally. Ouch. That is never my aim and that is not who I am After all, I am their ally in HR. But again, I wondered, could my own implicit bias factor into what I project to others?

When expanding my involvement in employee affinity groups, I sometimes found myself the only white member, feeling out of place where I was, at times, unwelcome. Were people really looking at me and wondering why I was there? Why did the woman explaining the focus of her ethnic-niche marketing research firm comment to me that “we don’t shop the way you do?” Do I shop the wrong way? However she intended it, I knew then how even a small comment can make someone feel excluded.

I eventually realized, if it feels this uncomfortable to be the only person like me in the room for just a few hours, what must it feel like to be that lone example every day? That insight helped me to appreciate multiple perspectives in new ways. By having experiences outside my in-group, I started developing cross cultural competency, a more agile mindset, and the ability to better put myself in someone else’s shoes.

For yourself, seek out information that opposes the implicit preference you would like to change. Interact with people who provide experience that counters that preference.

Remain alert to the implicit preference and recognize that it may intrude into your judgments and actions. However small, do things consciously to counteract implicit preferences. The bigger question now must be, how do we, as strategic HR advisors, illuminate implicit bias embedded within the practices across our organization?

Ask questions

As we incorporate this new perspective and awareness into our role as HR professionals, we can ask the questions that shift perspective.

A senior partner came to me for advice on selecting an associate for a three week, out-of-town trial, an incredible experience for a young attorney. The male partner said, “Kate would be terrific. She really knows the case. But she has little kids. I want to be sensitive to that. I’m going to ask Tom to handle it.”

I had one question: “Why don’t you ask Kate first?” Kate wanted the opportunity, she was ready—as he knew—and she had childcare and family support in place. To be fair, the partner had good intentions and thought he was doing the right thing, but me being in the room and posing a simple question, made a key difference in how this interaction unfolded.

Take action

Here is where all the groundwork we have laid as HR strategic advisors comes into play. Everyday we leverage our relationships, expertise, and political savvy to reshape HR systems, policies, and processes to ensure they are fair and inclusive. Because we are so committed to these principles, it is important to realize that one of the hidden keys in effective human interaction and HR management is taking definitive steps to root out implicit bias.

Run the numbers. Look across demographics at mentoring programs, promotion rates, turnover trends, performance ratings, and engagement scores. If we find differences across groups, we should ask ourselves why those differences exist and make needed changes.

Develop programs to support diverse talent through hiring and development. We are in a unique position to partner with leaders to ensure that all individuals receive skill-enhancing work. Identify, support and collaborate with other programs and organizations to increase diversity in the pipeline. Establish clear, objective interview criteria to combat the feedback that a candidate “just isn’t the right fit.”

…one of the hidden keys in effective human interaction and HR management is taking definitive steps to root out implicit bias.

Demonstrate inclusive behaviors and encourage open discussion with leaders about differences. A reverse-mentoring program engages leaders in dialogue with someone who sees the world through a different lens and experiences, and can help shift their implicit biases. Recognize the power of informal social networks and champion individuals of different backgrounds. Increasingly, organizations are investing in implicit bias workshops and training as effective ways to shift behaviors.

The results

Before I considered the impact of implicit bias on my work, I was missing a critical piece of the puzzle. I saw employees who felt devalued, discouraged and excluded, yet I couldn’t see why. From my perspective, it all seemed fair. We had policies. We had programs. The playing field was level…wasn’t it? When I began to develop my own awareness, I was changed. There was something there I hadn’t seen before. Changing my mindset was the first step towards expanding my ability to create a more inclusive environment within the organizations I help to lead.

I will never fully know what it is like to be the only person like me in the room every day of my life. But as an HR professional–and as a human being–I deeply believe operate better when they are a part of a welcoming workforce. I will continue to strive to create that type of workforce and also continue to realize my own implicit biases.

Laura Hlavacek Rabideau prizes the Human Resources profession as one defined by helping people thrive. Throughout her career as an HR and Diversity Leader, Laura embraces the challenge of creating spaces where all voices are heard and all talents valued. She can be reached at laurarabideau@gmail.com and at 773.332.1258.

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