Implicit Bias in the Workplace

By Jerome Gibson


As surprising as it may sound to you, all of us are biased to some extent. Common biases exist against people based on their gender (most often against women), religious beliefs (particularly against Muslims in the post 9/11 era), sexual orientation (against those in the LGBT community), or race (especially Caucasians against African Americans and vice versa). Some of us are biased towards different political sides, prone to making harsh judgements dependent on whether someone identifies as Democratic or Republican. In spite of this, being biased is not something to feel particularly guilty about. These viewpoints represent ways that we as human beings make sense of the world based on a variety of information, often filtered through fear and extrapolated across entire populations, that we then interpret into beliefs to make us feel safe. Bias creates for us a sense of familiarity and alignment with our environments and the people in them. It becomes a real issue of discrimination when it is used as a reason for preventing people from being their greatest selves based on mistaken or unjust conclusions about them. Because bias is such a wide ranging issue across society, in this article I’d like to focus solely on its effect in the workplace. Let’s first discuss what the definition of bias is and where some of these prejudices come from.

The definition of “bias” (in the context of this article) according to the Oxford Dictionary is:
• (noun) Inclination or prejudice for or against one person or group, especially in a way considered to be unfair.

Biases develop through unconscious means, almost subliminally. We are all for the most part products of our upbringing, the sum of our experiences with our families, friends, and communities. The way that we see the world develops through a kind of subjective “lens” over time. Thus, our worldviews are indicative of the social and cultural groups that we associate ourselves with (or are most often born into). We then adapt to internalize the moods, perceptions, and traditions of them. Within that process we also tend to develop the belief that there is something inferior about other cultural groups, which in turn justifies our prejudices and inherent wish to see those like “us” succeed and attain benefit. Again, being biased is not the real issue here, it’s when we have failed to address our biases to the point that they are affecting someone else’s livelihood. We all must give people a fair chance regardless of their personal, physical, religious, or racial identity. Bias almost always has a way of trickling down into the choices that we make about other people and affecting them adversely.

This leads me back to the more direct goal of this article, which is identifying the effects of implicit bias in the workplace. It is first worth noting that the bulk of where most of us spend our time is at work. This is compounded by the interesting factor that our work environments are also the most likely place for us to be coming into contact with a wide array of people, thereby giving us great opportunities to be mindful of our biases and resulting choices. For example, in management talent acquisition and assessment are by far the most important areas of an organization. The way people are identified in terms of recruitment, evaluating their skills, determining job assignments and promotions, even simply who gets dismissed or retained, are all considerations rife with opportunities for implicit bias. A specific instance of this could be where an individual who identifies with the LGBT community might encounter unfairness when being considered within those equations. Management might have contrary beliefs about how sex and gender should exist, believing that their way of living is “right” and the LGBT lifestyle is “wrong”, resulting in what they feel is justified bias. Although there is a theoretical measure of freedom present for those in charge to feel that way personally, the real issue is their resulting negative treatment towards such individuals. They might not be given certain leadership roles, or would have to endure insulting remarks regarding the LGBT community, perhaps even be terminated under exaggerated or false pretenses as a result of their sexual preference. Such treatment would affect the way they feel, see themselves and the company, causing low productivity, resentment, and eventual departure. In a just, unbiased reality this individual might have contributed greatly to positive outcomes for clients, the company, and society as a whole, regardless of their sexual preference.

Another example of bias involves Muslims, who presently experience severe prejudice across our society. The nationally traumatic events of September 11, 2001, were claimed by the terrorists who committed them as a “religious act”, made by supposedly “devout Muslims” drawn to violent action out of religious and social obligation, as part of a “jihad” or “Holy War”. As a result of this most egregious act, all Muslims have been generalized into being responsible for it, causing both unfair treatment and an all around misunderstanding of the Islamic faith. Anti-Muslim sentiment has built to the point that when most Americans hear the term “War On Terror” they automatically think of a war on all Muslims. This distortion is contradicted by a key instance where Muslims face misinterpretation: their customary act of praying five times a day, a practice called “salat”. This practice is the second highest spiritual obligation that a Muslim adheres to and ironically, its personal importance is entirely about achieving peace. By engaging in prayer five times a day, they are essentially practicing a “jihad” or “spiritual struggle” within themselves. In essence, they are asking Allah to give them strength to endure life and its many emotional, spiritual and societal woes. Thus, their faith provides them with a regular source of peace and joy, a feeling of resilience and a sense of renewal throughout their day. So, what most Americans would consider stereotypically as a consistent meditation on hate and evil directed at America is in actuality a deeply healthy psychological and spiritual cause for good. With a proper understanding of true Islamic religious belief, I believe a lot of negative bias against Muslims could be invalidated, resulting in newfound respect and the strengthening of the humanistic bonds of all faiths. This is important in regards to the workplace for several reasons. First of all, to recognize and be mindful of this extreme societal bias represents an aspect of inclusion and understanding that promotes harmony, teamwork and productivity. Secondly, because their prayer occurs during the workday, it emphasizes not just understanding but support in the workplace of the religious rights and values of those outside of traditional mainstream American Judeo-Christian culture. America has always been an important work in progress, and bias resulting from September of 2001 can only be replaced by the reality of our present mutual search for our highest selves, an endeavor I feel is best conducted within the diverse and personally invested environments of our work lives.

My last example involving bias is one that seemingly exists toward middle-aged white men. Part of the issue is as a result of the word “diversity”. When many middle-aged white men hear the word “diversity” they automatically think it’s about their jobs being obligatorily passed to minorities or women. This is simply not the case. “Diversity” is a policy that encourages culture and inclusion, meaning an approach that involves utilizing everyone’s unique talents, regardless of their race, sex and or religious adherence. It is often mistaken as a false belief that a group or person is simply being given unwarranted consideration as part of an unfair bias against middle-aged white men. The roots of this scenario are historically documented. Decades ago, it was not unfamiliar to see the workforce populated by mostly privileged white men, especially the top executive positions and upper management. Many middle-aged white men have stated that in recent decades they have often witnessed those like them being passed up for advancement or promotions in favor of minorities or women, regardless of the fact that based on qualifications the positions would have gone to the white candidates. This is in response to the program Affirmative Action, which operates on the government mandated goal of encouraging institutions to mirror society at large. Again, middle-aged white men have felt an ironic backlash as a result of this attempt. In regards to bias in the workplace, this program ensures opportunities for individuals that have been discriminated against for decades. Whereas bias finds its origins in a selfish distortion of facts and opinion into unfair treatment, diversity is a policy seeking to promote fair action against a proven historical, systemic bias. In an ideal situation diversity would happen in the workplace naturally, but until it can this policy is in place to empower those who have been consistently dismissed entirely for too long.

In closing, it is rare to work at a place and not experience some kind of implicit bias, I’ve experienced it personally. We all share some of the same kinds of unconscious biases towards one another. In fact, I previously stated that being biased is not necessarily a bad thing. Where it manifests as a deeply negative influence is where we allow it to affect how we see others who may be better prepared for a particular job, and we choose to overlook them because of some inferior conclusion of them. It is vital for all of us that we seek to be mindful of the places and aspects of our lives in which we have authority over this. By identifying those we can take action to moderate our behavior appropriately, further enabling us to take part in the greater push to encourage humanity and mutual respect. Great mutual benefit resides in our willingness to be aware of our biases and our work to make choices that ensure fair, positive results.

I am a firm believer that in the very near future companies who are serious about diversity will have an incredible edge over their competitors. Just as bias extends from one group against another, I think the marketplace will develop its own kind of bias, one that values companies that embrace diversity over those that don’t. That in itself would represent a long overdue karmic shift, empowering all of us to reach our greatest potential.